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Nordic Journal of Criminology
ISSN: 2578-983X (Print) 2578-9821 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/scri21
Low recidivism rates of child sex offenders in a
Finnish 7-year follow-up
Taina Laajasalo, Noora Ellonen, Julia Korkman, Tom Pakkanen & Olli-Pekka
To cite this article: Taina Laajasalo, Noora Ellonen, Julia Korkman, Tom Pakkanen & Olli-Pekka
Aaltonen (2020): Low recidivism rates of child sex offenders in a Finnish 7-year follow-up, Nordic
Journal of Criminology, DOI: 10.1080/2578983X.2020.1730069
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/2578983X.2020.1730069
Published online: 19 Feb 2020.
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Low recidivism rates of child sex oﬀenders in a Finnish 7-year
, Noora Ellonen
, Julia Korkman
, Tom Pakkanen
Department of Psychology and Logopedics, Faculty of Medicine, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland;
Forensic Psychology Center for Children and Adolescents, Helsinki, Finland;
Institute of Criminology and
Legal Policy, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland;
Faculty of Social Science, Tampere University,
Department of Psychology, Åbo Akademi University, Turku, Finland
This study examines the recidivism rates of Finnish child sex oﬀen-
ders convicted in 2010 (n= 361) over a follow-up period of seven
years. The results indicate that while reoﬀending for other types of
oﬀences was common (34%), oﬀenders had very low sexual crime
recidivism rates (1%). In terms of more persistent criminal careers,
less than a quarter of the oﬀenders had both a previous criminal
history and at least one subsequent oﬀence during the follow-up
period. Oﬀenders with child sexual abuse material-related crimes
reoﬀended more rarely than did others. Study limitations and impli-
cations for policymaking, media and rehabilitation are discussed.
Received 12 October 2019
Accepted 12 February 2020
Child sexual abuse;
The idea that perpetrators of child sexual abuse are at an especially high risk of recidivism
is commonly fed by media reports and is accepted both in public and clinical discourse.
However, this notion is not supported by the scientiﬁc literature. This gap between the
research and public perceptions has been discussed since the 1950s (Tappan, 1955).
A seminal meta-analysis by Schmucker and Lösel (2015) featuring an international sample
of over 10,000 sexual oﬀenders found recidivism rates of 10% in treated oﬀenders and
14% in untreated oﬀenders. However, this large meta-study included studies with mixed
groups of rapists, child molesters and other types of oﬀender, thus failing to take into
consideration the fact that recidivism rates may vary depending on whether the victim of
the sexual crime is a minor or an adult.
According to a second meta-analysis, sex oﬀence recidivism risk factors comprise two
major dimensions (Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2005), the ﬁrst being atypical sexuality,
consisting of paraphilias such as paedophilia, hebephilia, sexual sadism and hypersexu-
ality, and the second being related to antisocial features, including antisocial personality
traits and a lifestyle characterized by, for example, impulsivity and substance abuse.
Indications exist that predisposing factors for both sexual oﬀending in general and
recidivism speciﬁcally may diﬀer somewhat depending on the type of index oﬀence.
CONTACT Taina Laajasalo taina.laajasalo@helsinki.ﬁDepartment of Psychology and Logopedics, Faculty of
Medicine, University of Helsinki, P.O.Box 63, Helsinki 00014, Finland
NORDIC JOURNAL OF CRIMINOLOGY
© 2020 The Scandinavian Research Council for Criminology
For example, oﬀenders whose victims are adults are more likely to have an antisocial
orientation than are child sex oﬀenders (Firestone et al., 1998). Furthermore, maladaptive
cognitive schemas that are known to play a role in the initiation of sexual crimes, as well as
in reoﬀending, seem to diﬀer between the subtypes of sex oﬀender (Sigre-Leirós,
Carvalho, & Nobre, 2015). Thus, it is somewhat surprising that discussions and analyses
of reoﬀending rates rarely distinguish between child sexual abuse oﬀenders and those
who oﬀend against adults.
In order to understand child sex oﬀence recidivism better, it is important to realize that
oﬀenders committing sexual crimes against children are a heterogeneous group.
Estimates suggest that about half of such oﬀenders show disorders of sexual preference,
namely, paedophilia or hebephilia, which might be exclusive (sexually attracted only to
children) or non-exclusive (sexually attracted to both adults and children). For others,
oﬀences are related to antisocial tendencies, in some cases as severe as psychopathy,
which by deﬁnition is accompanied by a callous disregard for others. In terms of recidi-
vism, the co-occurrence of atypical sexual preferences and psychopathy is the most toxic
combination (Seto, 2018). In addition, some oﬀend sexually against children for other
reasons, including intellectual disability. The recidivism risk varies depending on the type
of victim: the recidivism rates of intrafamilial child molesters are generally lower than
those of extrafamilial child molesters are (Hanson, 2002).
Recidivism rates should also be considered within the national socio-legal context. It is
worth noting that in an international comparison, sentences for child sexual abuse in
Finland and other Nordic countries can be regarded as short. For example, the sentence in
Finland for aggravated child sexual abuse is 1–10 years, but the mean length is less than
5 years. Sentences under two years are typically given as conditional imprisonment, and
ﬁrst-timers typically serve half of their sentence (Hinkkanen, 2009). There are no sex
oﬀender registries. In the public debate, Finnish criminal policies are sometimes criticized
for being too mild but contrary to popular belief, according to a new study, citizens’sense
of justice seems to align quite well with the punishment policies applied by the autho-
rities, and Finnish people ﬁnd preventive measures, not imprisonment, to be the most
important approach to diminishing criminality (Kääriäinen, 2018).
In a meta-analysis consisting of more than 4000 oﬀenders with an average follow-up
period of four to ﬁve years (Hanson & Bussière, 1998), the recidivism rates for sexual
oﬀences and non-sexual violent oﬀences, as well as the reconviction rates for any type of
oﬀence, were signiﬁcantly higher for rapists than for child molesters. However, not all
studies have found signiﬁcant diﬀerences. In a study of 419 released sexual oﬀenders
followed over an average of seven years, 13% reoﬀended sexually, while 16% of those
initially convicted of child sexual oﬀences relapsed into child sexual abuse (Looman &
Abracen, 2010). Furthermore, Harris and Hanson (2004) found similar recidivism estimates
for rapists (14%, 21% and 24% after 5, 10 and 15 years) and child molesters (13%, 18% and
The reported rates for child sexual abuse reoﬀences vary between countries. The
variance may reﬂect not only methodological diﬀerences, such as diﬀerent data sources
and deﬁnitions of recidivism, but also the earlier mentioned diﬀerences in legislation,
culture and social circumstances (Nilsson et al., 2014). Thus, data from diverse samples are
warranted. In a Swedish study of child sexual abuse oﬀenders with a 10- to 15-year follow-
up (Nilsson et al., 2014), a 10% relapse rate into sexual oﬀences in a population-based
2T. LAAJASALO ET AL.
cohort was found (n= 193). For a clinic-referred group (n= 166), the relapse rate was 14%.
In two separate studies of convicted Finnish sex oﬀenders, by Hinkkanen (2009) and
Laaksonen and Tyni (2015), with mean follow-up periods of 9 years and 7.5 years,
respectively, the rate of reconvictions for sexual crimes was low, around 6%. In neither
of these studies was recidivism risk associated with child sexual abuse.
In terms of treatment goals and rehabilitation, it is of interest to examine the type of
oﬀences that sex oﬀenders commit once they relapse, as well as the diﬀerences between
the index crime and recidivism rates. Previous studies have established a tendency to
relapse into violent rather than sexual crimes (Hanson & Bussière, 1998; Schmucker &
Lösel, 2015). Likewise, in a meta-analysis of 63 datasets (n= 11,219 adolescent sex
oﬀenders, mean follow-up period of 59.4 months), a mean sex oﬀence recidivism rate
of only 7% was found, whereas the recidivism rate for general criminality was 43%
(Caldwell et al., 2010). Furthermore, recidivism rates may vary between types of child
sexual oﬀender. For example, while longitudinal studies on the recidivism of oﬀenders
whose crimes are limited to making, possessing or distributing child sexual abuse material
are still scarce, existing studies suggest that individuals charged with online oﬀences
seldom engage in future contact oﬀences (Hirschtritt, Tucker, & Binder, 2019).
The aim of this study was to assess the recidivism rates of Finnish child sexual abuse
oﬀenders. We describe the type of reoﬀences (sexual vs. other), as well the relationship
between the index crime (child sexual abuse crimes vs. child sexual abuse material-related
crimes) and reoﬀending. The follow-up period was seven years. For those sanctioned with
imprisonment (n= 67), the follow-up period was on average 25 months shorter because
of the imprisonment.
Sample and procedure
The analysis is based on longitudinal register data of convictions for sexual oﬀences
against children in 2010. The data are from a database maintained by the Institute of
Criminology and Legal Policy, which includes convictions and ﬁnes given for all crimes
in Finland in 2005–2017. For the analysis, convictions for sexual oﬀences against
children in 2010 were selected to ensure a long enough follow-up time, that a period
was selected in which there had not been any substantial legislative changes inﬂuen-
cing the recording of oﬀences (2010–2017) and to collect information about the criminal
history of the oﬀenders (2005–2010).
The cases were collected from the database on the basis of the title of the oﬀence. All
14 oﬀence titles indicating that the crime was conducted against children were included.
In cases where the perpetrator was convicted of several sexual oﬀences, the most serious
child-related sexual oﬀence—according to length of maximum sentence—was included,
and all other oﬀences were excluded. A particular incident is thus included only once, and
perpetrators are the unit of observation in the data.
Children can also be victims of other sexual oﬀences, such as rape. These had to be
excluded because the database includes information only about the crime and perpe-
trator, not about the age of the victim. However, if a child falls victim to rape, the charges
should also, according to Finnish law, include child sexual abuse. Therefore, it is very
unlikely that any cases have been excluded from the data on this basis. The ﬁnal dataset
includes 361 convicted oﬀenders.
NORDIC JOURNAL OF CRIMINOLOGY 3
Six oﬀence types were found: sexual abuse of a child, aggravated sexual abuse of a child,
aggravated distribution of a sexually oﬀensive picture depicting a child, possession of
a sexually oﬀensive picture depicting a child, purchase of sexual services from a young
person and incest. The last two crime types included only two cases each, and were
combined into the category ‘other’. For some of the analysis, sexual oﬀences were
dichotomized into contact oﬀences, including sexual abuse and aggravated sexual
abuse, and material-related oﬀences, including possession and distribution of child sexual
abuse material. In this dichotomization, the category ‘others’(n= 4) was excluded.
Two dichotomous variables were used: whether the oﬀender had convictions for
child-related sexual oﬀences or for other crimes during the ﬁve-year period prior to
the 2010 conviction. The data also included the age and gender of the oﬀender, but
gender could not be used in the analysis because the data included only four
Four separate dichotomous variables for sanctions were used: imprisonment, conditional
imprisonment, ﬁne and community service.
Two separate variables (also dichotomous) were formed: new convictions for any type of
sexual oﬀence and convictions for other crimes. Reconvictions were included from the
2010 conviction until the end of 2017.
The analysis was limited to a descriptive analysis, including, for example, frequencies
and contingency tables, due to the low number of cases. Statistical inference was
not used because there was no probability sample used. The data included all cases
The most common type of index oﬀence was child sexual abuse, and the most common
sanction was conditional imprisonment. Altogether, 61 oﬀenders (17%) were convicted of
child sexual abuse material-related crimes (possession, distribution).
The majority of the oﬀenders (95%) had no prior sexual oﬀence convictions for the ﬁve
years before the conviction in 2010. Half (50%) of the convicted had prior convictions for
other crimes and 13% had more than 10 convictions.
Only four oﬀenders (1%) were reconvicted of a sexual crime after the 2010 conviction.
For other types of oﬀence, the recidivism rate was considerably higher (34%). For
a complete listing of all the variables and their frequencies, see Table 1.
4T. LAAJASALO ET AL.
Because the data only included the date when the sentence ended and not the actual
release date, exact survival times cannot be reported. Survival times between the end of
the sentence of the index crime and a new sexual oﬀence were 63, 253, 802 and 1661 days
for the four oﬀenders who reoﬀended in this regard. For other reoﬀenders, survival times
varied between 3 and 2434 days.
Of those who had been convicted of contact crimes (sexual abuse, aggravated
sexual abuse), 55% had prior convictions. After the 2010 conviction, 39% had
acquired a reconviction for a non-sexual crime and four oﬀenders (1%) for a sexual
crime. Of those who had been convicted of oﬀences related to child sexual abuse
material (possession and distribution), 26% had prior convictions and 8% reoﬀended.
All the reoﬀences were non-sexual oﬀences. In both groups, about 5% had prior
convictions for sexual oﬀences (for all sexual crimes, including oﬀences with adult
A large variation in the number of convictions (range 3–197) was observed. When
criminal history and recidivism variables were combined to describe the criminal
trajectories of the oﬀenders, 28.4% of those convicted of contact oﬀences and 4.9%
of those convicted of distribution and possession of child sexual abuse material had
at least three convictions for the period 2005–2017, of which at least one was
asexualoﬀence (the index oﬀence) against children. For a summary of the criminal
history and recidivism by type of child sexual abuse oﬀences, see Table 2.
Table 1. Variables and their frequencies, pertaining to the index oﬀence, sentence, oﬀender
Sexual oﬀence Sexual abuse of a child 258 71.5
Aggravated sexual abuse of a child 38 10.5
Possession of CSA material 50 13.9
Distribution of CSA material 11 3.0
Other 4 1.1
Imprisonment 67 18.6
Conditional imprisonment 241 66.8
Fine 69 19.1
Community service 9 2.5
Under 21 56 15.5
22–35 142 39.3
36–49 91 25.2
50–65 59 16.3
Over 65 13 3.6
Previous sexual oﬀences
None 343 95.0
One previous conviction 10 2.8
Several previous convictions 8 2.2
Previous other oﬀences
None 180 49.9
10 or fewer previous convictions 135 37.4
Over 10 previous convictions 46 12.7
Convictions for sexual oﬀences 2010–2017 4 1.1
Convictions for other oﬀences 2010–2017 121 33.5
Other = purchase of sexual services from a young person and sexual contact between close relatives CSA = child
NORDIC JOURNAL OF CRIMINOLOGY 5
Our ﬁndings replicate earlier, fairly robust ﬁndings on child sexual abuse recidivism:
compared to other criminals, child sex oﬀenders are reconvicted relatively seldom (e.g.
Seto, 2018), and although longer follow-up times increase the recidivism rates slightly, the
overall percentages remain relatively low. In the current sample, perpetrators of child
sexual abuse rarely reoﬀended with new child sexual abuse oﬀences. As with recidivism
more generally, a minority of the oﬀenders committed the majority of the oﬀences,
showing evidence of a persistent criminal trajectory: 87 (24%) had a criminal history
and reconviction (for any type of oﬀence). To sum up, the stereotypical image of the
proliﬁc child sexual abuse repeat oﬀender remains a myth without empirical support, or at
least much more rare than the media-fed availability bias (Levenson, Brannon, Fortney, &
Baker, 2007) would have readers believe.
The sentences in Finland are short enough for a seven-year follow-up to allow for
opportunities to reoﬀend. However, only one-ﬁfth of the oﬀenders in this study were
imprisoned during the follow-up. Furthermore, extending the follow-up period would
likely have had only a small eﬀect: the likelihood of recidivism declines the longer an
individual remains sexual oﬀence-free in the community, and after 10 to 15 years, most
individuals with a history of sexual oﬀences are no more likely to commit a new sexual
oﬀence than are individuals with a criminal history that did not include sexual oﬀences
(Hanson, Harris, Letourneau, Helmus, & Thornton, 2018).
When considering the reasons behind the low recidivism rates observed in this study, it
bears mentioning that recent years have brought about changes in the rehabilitation
programmes oﬀered to child sexual abuse oﬀenders in Finland. For example, since
2012–2014, a proportion of low-risk child sexual abuse oﬀenders, including those
whose punishment is a ﬁne or unconditional imprisonment, are oﬀered a new voluntary
rehabilitation programme tailored for sex oﬀenders. On-going studies are assessing the
outreach of the programme and whether the imposed changes have had an eﬀect on
recidivism rates. With regard to the content of rehabilitation, our results highlight the
need to focus on general, non-sexual criminogenic factors. Also of note is that the very
low base rate of sexual reoﬀending poses a signiﬁcant challenge for risk assessment,
making it extremely challenging to identify potential reoﬀenders and increasing the risk
of false positive predictions signiﬁcantly (Berk, 2008).
Table 2. Criminal history and recidivism by type of CSA oﬀence (contact- or material-related oﬀences).
Contact oﬀences CSA material oﬀences
N% N %
Previous sexual oﬀences 15 5.1 3 4.9
Previous other oﬀences 164 55.4 16 26.2
Convictions for sexual oﬀences 2010–2017 4 1.4 0 0.0
Convictions for other oﬀences 2010–2017 115 38.9 5 8.2
Criminal history and recidivism 84 28.4 3 4.9
Contact oﬀences = sexual abuse, aggravated sexual abuse
CSA material oﬀences = possession and distribution of child sexual abuse material
6T. LAAJASALO ET AL.
Sexual crimes in general largely go under-reported and child sexual abuse is no
exception. According to a recent Finnish victim survey, only one-quarter of child sexual
abuse victims had disclosed to adults (Lahtinen, Laitila, Korkman, & Ellonen, 2018).
However, while the actual prevalence of child sexual abuse has gone down (Lahtinen
et al., 2018), the number of suspected child sexual abuse reports made to the police has
been increasing in recent years in Finland (Fagerlund, Peltola, Kääräinen, Ellonen, &
Sariola, 2014). In light of child victim survey data, it seems that the most severe cases
have diminished but are more often reported, while cases that the young do not
themselves consider a crime (typically cases with small age diﬀerences) have increased
but may go unreported.
The recidivism rates observed in this study are lower than those of previous national
estimates, which is likely at least in part to be the result of diﬀerences in sampling. For
example, Laaksonen and Tyni (2015) investigated recidivism only among sex oﬀenders who
had been incarcerated for their crime whereas, in our sample, conditional imprisonment was
the most common sanction. Hinkkanen (2009) obtained a reoﬀending percentage of less
than 5% among child sex oﬀenders (the exact percentage was not reported). This is a higher
percentage than ours is, but it is noteworthy that none of the oﬀenders in his sample
convicted of aggravated child sexual abuse (n= 120) were convicted again for sexual
oﬀences, re-emphasizing the rareness of reconvictions among child sexual abuse oﬀenders.
Depending on the national legislation, cases in which older adolescents (above the
age of 15) engage in sexual relationships with early or mid-adolescent peers (13–15 years)
may lead to convictions (Hinkkanen, 2009). The legal age of consent varies for the Nordic
countries (e.g. 15 years in Sweden, 16 years in Finland and Norway), implying that sexual
interactions including adolescents of 15 years may be regarded as child sexual abuse in
Finland but not in Sweden. Interestingly, Hinkkanen (2009) showed that for 14% of the
child sex crime convictions in Finland, the perpetrator was the victim’s partner, the age of
the victim was most commonly 14 or 15 years and the age diﬀerence between the parties
was typically between 4 and 10 years. Where the age diﬀerence was greater than 10 years,
punishments tended to be more severe and the victims younger (Hinkkanen, 2009). It can
be hypothesized that in cases involving adolescents, reconvictions will be rarer than in
other cases because the perpetrators were acting within relationships and the age
diﬀerence does not indicate an age-related paraphilia. Analyses of sexual experiences,
as reported in child victim surveys of 12- and 15-year-olds (Fagerlund et al., 2014), also
indicate that 14- to 15-year-old girls comprise the majority of youngsters reporting sexual
experiences with persons at least 5 years older. The majority of these experiences are
reported to be consensual and take place within relationships. It is worth noting that 30%
of Finnish females and around 25% of Finnish males report having had their ﬁrst inter-
course before the age of 16, that is, before reaching the legal age of consent (Kontula,
2015). All cases in which the other party is 15 years or older (the age of criminal
responsibility) could be regarded as constituting child sexual abuse from a legal perspec-
tive. Future studies exploring child sex oﬀences should diﬀerentiate between sexual
interactions among adolescents and cases with greater age diﬀerences.
Our study has limitations and caution needs to be exercised when interpreting the
results. This was a descriptive study with a small sample and used only conviction data.
Thus, it has limited generalization. The study sheds light only on detected and convicted
oﬀenders. A number of interesting variables, such as victim’s age, could not be obtained.
NORDIC JOURNAL OF CRIMINOLOGY 7
As a ﬁnal note, as pointed out by Seto (2018), the popular but misleading view that
child sexual abuse oﬀenders are highly likely to reoﬀend may be used as a means of
justifying harsher sanctions. Discussing punitive policies related to sexual and other
oﬀences is beyond the scope of this study. However, the current results suggest, in line
with earlier international studies, that in Finland, too, harsher sanctions against child sex
oﬀenders should not be motivated by the argument that they would reduce recidivism.
1. The data include the length of the sanction but not the exact release date. Twenty-ﬁve
months is the average length of the unconditional imprisonment sentences given to the
oﬀenders in the data.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the authors.
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NORDIC JOURNAL OF CRIMINOLOGY 9