RIT study is Butner Redux deja vu

Michael M . . . A recent study conducted by researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology, or RIT, is already being cited in Federal Court cases to support the false presumption of a high rate of unreported child molestations by those convicted of child pornography offenses. This is despite the fact that it suffers from exactly the same serious flaws and inaccuracies as the infamous and thoroughly discredited “Butner Redux” study, which first appeared in the Journal of Family Violence in 2009.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Butner Redux controversy, here are some of the basics. There were actually two studies conducted at FCI Butner. The “First Butner Study”, a preliminary study done in 2000, suggested a significantly higher rate of hands-on offenses among the population of child pornography offenders than had been known at the time of sentencing. That study involved just sixty-two people in a Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP) group, whose crimes “involved the production, distribution, receipt, and possession of child pornography, or involved luring a child and traveling across state lines to sexually abuse a child.”

Butner Study Redux, or the second study, was conducted between 2002 and 2005. It began with 201 SOTP participants and concluded with 155. The 46 exclusions were for voluntary withdrawals, expulsions, and one death. The results of the study suggested that at sentencing, 26% of the study subjects were known to have committed a hands-on offense against a minor. By the end of their SOTP treatment, 85% had admitted to molesting at least one child. The study’s conclusions were widely circulated in the media and cited by prosecutors in court cases to justify longer prison terms for CP defendants.

Almost immediately, the Butner studies came under intense scrutiny and criticism for institutional bias, sloppy methodology, misrepresentational sampling, flawed data gathering, and subject coercion.

First, let’s examine how this “peer reviewed study” first appeared in the Journal of Family Violence.  From their submission guidelines: “Pay $3000 for Springer Open Choice [Plan] to have articles made available with full, open access.” The guidelines also state, “All manuscripts are assigned to an editor who will manage the external peer review process. The Journal encourages authors to recommend individuals who could be considered as reviewers [and] are given the opportunity to request the exclusion… of individuals.” In other words, the author gets to pick who does – and doesn’t – conduct the so-called “peer review.”

Second, let’s take a look at the subjects of the study. Each had been convicted of at least one federal sex crime which involved child pornography and was incarcerated in a federal prison. To characterize this sample as being typical of all persons in the general population outside of prison who have ever viewed child pornography would be somewhat akin to comparing those in federal prison for larceny with everyone who has ever stolen a candy bar.

Next, consider the way SOTP works. The foundational purpose of SOTP is to get participants to overcome denial, admit their wrongdoing, take responsibility for it, and commit to never offending again. It is typically, for all intents and purposes, a one-size-fits-all curriculum that unfortunately treats all sex offenders like violent rapists. It is extremely ill-equipped to address non-contact crimes such as internet crimes or child pornography. As a result, this often results in group facilitators and participants attempting to “shoe-horn” non-contact crimes into a “hands-on” criminal context for lesson plans and exercises.

Participants who minimize or justify their crimes are shamed or berated. Anyone who claims to have been wrongly convicted is reprimanded and may be thrown out of the program. On the other hand, participants who admit to wrongdoing – any wrongdoing, even hypothetical acts or fantasizing about them – get rewarded.

One should also keep in mind the fact that the facilitator gets to define “sex crimes” however he or she likes. I once had an SOTP facilitator tell me that spooning with my wife while she sleeps is a sex crime, since she cannot give consent to being touched while sleeping! Participants were instructed by facilitators that their recollections didn’t need to be accurate and, in fact, shouldn’t be so accurate that they could result in being charged with additional crimes. Participants were even encouraged to include incidents that occurred when they were very young children.

In the end, many prison SOTP participants tell program facilitators exactly what they want to hear, since successful completion of SOTP can lead to their eventual freedom. The system is highly coercive and gives participants every reason to exaggerate or lie about any previously unreported offenses. After all, they have nothing to lose by doing so and everything to gain. In statistical terms, studies utilizing such methodologies suffer from “researcher demand characteristics.”

Fast forward to 2018, and researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology have used exactly the same flawed methodology as Butner to conclude: “More than half of the men on federal probation in western New York for child pornography possession had instances of sexual contact with children that were previously unknown to legal authorities.”

Respected researchers and statisticians should thoroughly examine the RIT study immediately and critically before it becomes another Butner “blunt force object” to be used by prosecutors nationwide to paint all CP defendants with the label of “unindicted child molester.”

Sandy Rozek

Written by 

Sandy, a NARSOL board member, is communications director for NARSOL, editor-in-chief of the Digest, and a writer for the Digest and the NARSOL website. Additionally, she participates in updating and managing the website and assisting with a variety of organizational tasks.