PORTLAND – Contrary to popular belief, freed sex offenders in Maine commit more sex crimes at a much lower rate than other former inmates carry out more non-sex crimes, according to a new statewide study.

Less than 4 percent of sex offenders released between 2004 and 2006 were re-imprisoned for a sex crime in the three years after their release, according to the Maine analysis.

By contrast, about 21 percent of perpetrators of other crimes released during the same period were re-imprisoned in the three years after their release.

Although these findings are similar to other studies around the country that have found relatively low recidivism rates for sex offenders, they still fly in the face of public perception, which suggests sex offenders go on to commit more sex crimes at stunningly high rates.

Mark Rubin, the study’s co-author, said the findings didn’t surprise him.

“There’s a perception that sex offenders recidivate at a higher rate than other criminals, but there’s really no data to support that theory,” said Rubin, a research associate at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service.

“I’ve read and seen data that sex offenders across the country have very low recidivism rates.”

The Maine study, conducted by the Muskie School with the help of the Maine Department of Corrections, is the first of its kind in the state.

It followed 18,295 prisoners released from prison from 2004 to 2008. About 900 of those, or slightly less than 5 percent, were sex offenders.

Dr. Joe Fitzpatrick, the clinical director for the Corrections Department, attributed the low recidivism rates for sex offenders to the department’s proactive approach.

The department provides intense individual and group therapy programs for sex offenders during their incarceration, and then strict supervision and rules after they’re sent home.

“Specialized probation officers are also partnering with family members, community members and employers, who can all lend a hand when it comes to supervising,” Fitzpatrick said.

“Monitoring where offenders live, where they work and where they spend their time are all part of a wrap-around approach to ensuring no more victims.”

The 4 percent recidivism rate found in Maine doesn’t significantly differ from other state and national studies. The Department of Justice followed convicts released in 1994, and found that 5.4 percent of sex offenders were re-imprisoned for sex crimes in the three years after their release.

But that hasn’t deterred the public from believing that sex offenders re-offend much more than other criminals.

One 2009 survey in Florida found that 68 percent of people believe sex criminals “re-offend at much higher rates” than other convicts.

And 65 percent to 80 percent of the public believes sex offenders go on to commit more sex crimes, according to several other studies. The Maine study didn’t analyze public perceptions.

Numerous factors contribute to these misconceptions, experts said. Part of it may be media portrayals of sex offenders. Part of it is mixed evidence about whether treatment for sex criminals is effective, or extreme fear of heinous sex crimes.

“It’s completely understandable,” Fitzpatrick said. “Sex offenders cause so much harm, the effect on the community and the risk to the community is always significant, even with a single offense.”

But some experts said to take the new study’s findings with a grain of salt. Sexual assaults are extremely underreported compared with other crimes, so some sex offenders may be committing new crimes without being detected, said Elizabeth Ward Saxl, executive director of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

“While that recidivism data tells us something, it doesn’t give us a clear picture of what’s going on,” Saxl said.

It’s also important to acknowledge the variety of sex offenders when looking at any data, Saxl said. Sex offenders can be child molesters, or someone who urinated in public, or a 19-year-old who had sex with a 16-year-old. Depending on what category of sex offender one studies, the recidivism rates could drastically differ.

Fitzpatrick said Maine acknowledges these differences, and provides different therapies and probation rules for different types of sex offenders.

“Some sex offenders may only commit one sex crime their entire life; others may commit hundreds of sex crimes,” Saxl said. “You can’t put them all into one box.”

The Muskie School decided to study sex offenders because at the time research began, many Maine communities were deciding how to deal with sex offenders, Rubin said.

Under the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, all sex offenders must register their location at least once a year. But some cities and towns have taken it a step further, by passing legislation that makes it nearly impossible for sex offenders to live within their jurisdictions.

Some experts say the strict rules actually make sex offenders more dangerous. Because of the public ostracism, it becomes more difficult for sex offenders to get a job, find a place to live and re-assimilate into society after leaving prison.

This instability and alienation can make them more likely to commit another sex crime, Fitzpatrick and others said.

Rubin said he’d like to track these same convicts’ recidivism rates five and 10 years after their release from prison. He’d also like to collect data on whether the often severe restrictions against sex offenders help or hurt recidivism rates.

“It’s an emerging field of study,” Rubin said. “The problem is dealing with public policy right now when there’s not always enough data to make an informed decision.”

Staff Writer Jason Singer can be contacted at 791-6437 or at:

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