Offenders in Australia

Tags: Offending Behaviours

This article is an extract from
Sexual violence in Australia
Bree Cook, Fiona David and Anna Grant
Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology, 2001

The basic data available on sex offenders is derived from police and court records and the ABS prison census. Although these data are representative of sexual assault offenders who are apprehended by police and subsequently convicted, they are not necessarily representative of persons who are guilty of sexual assault but not apprehended by the police (Salmelainen & Coumarelos 1993, p. 7).

Statistics on the age and sex of offenders apprehended by police are available from five jurisdictions: Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania. However, because definitions of what constitutes a sex offence differ across jurisdictions, they are not comparable. Despite this, some interesting and similar patterns emerge.

Across these jurisdictions, about 98 per cent of sex offenders apprehended by police are male. Males between the ages of 20 and 39 are the most likely to be arrested for sex offences. The following pattern emerged for the five jurisdictions:

  • in Victoria, males in the 30-34 year age range had the highest rate of arrest for sex offences at 269.5 per 100,000 population the rate for males between 30 and 39 was 596.3 per 100,000 male population;
  • in Queensland, males in the 30-39 year age range again had the highest rate of arrest for sex offences, with 169.3 offenders per 100,000 male population;
  • in South Australia, males between the ages of 20 and 34 had a rate of arrest for sex offences of 193.6 per 100,000 male population;
  • in Western Australia, the highest rate of arrest for sex offending was for males between the ages of 25 and 34,237.8 per 100,000 male population;
  • in Tasmania, the highest rate of arrest for sex offending was for males between the ages of 20 and 24,44.5 per 100,000 male population.

An examination of New South Wales Criminal Court Statistics 1997 reveals a similar pattern. Ninety-eight per cent of persons found guilty of sex offences in New South Wales Higher and Lower Courts were male (n=621). Only 10 women were found guilty of sex offences; seven of these were for sex offences against children. The highest percentage of males convicted of sex offences were in the 30-39 age range (26%). However, the highest rate per 100,000 male population was for males aged 19 (New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research 1998b, pp. 28-32, 76-80).

The Australian Bureau of Statistics conducts a national prison census on 30 June each year, which provides information on prisoners' sex and age, most serious offence, aggregate sentence and expected time to serve. In 1997 there were 2,171 sentenced prisoners and 167 remandees in prison for sex offences in Australia. There was a total imprisonment rate of 12.6 per 100,000 population for sex offences. New South Wales had the largest number of persons in prison for sex offences, however the highest rate was in the Northern Territory (25.7 per 100,000 population) followed by Western Australia (22.5 per 100,000 population).

An overwhelming 99 per cent of persons in prison for sex offences are male. The highest rate of imprisonment for sex offences is for those between the ages of 40 and 44 (25.6 per 100,000 population). A little over three-quarters of all prisoners fell in the 25-55 age range.

It is possible to supplement these statistics with information from the existing literature about offenders. Again, the literature tends to focus on convicted sex offenders.

It has been well documented that there is great variation amongst sex offenders in terms of the characteristics of the victim, the degree of force used and method of offending, and their arousal profiles and motivation. Intelligence, social competence, cultural values, attachment bonds, personal victimisation, substance abuse, presence of conduct disorder, observation of sexual violence and use of pornography are considered to be significant factors affecting the likelihood of sexual offending (Weinrott 1996). Events such as being angry, drunk or sexually aroused have been identified; other factors have included poor parenting, lack of parental protection and distorted acquisition of the necessary competencies for normal sexual development (Hoghughi 1997). Isolation from extended kin, financial and psychological problems were also identified (Hiller & Goddard 1990). One risk factor which has gained particular attention in recent times is the link between prior victimisation (either sexual or otherwise) and subsequent offending.

However, the research is not conclusive on many of the identified factors. Many of these factors can work in different ways for different offenders and different types of sexual offending (that is, the differences between rape and child sexual assault and the people that offend in these ways). Considering the number of factors above, there is potential for endless variation and this has serious implications in the areas of prevention, intervention and treatment. Due to the lack of empirical research examining these contributing factors, the causal links between these factors and the subsequent offending behaviour remains unclear (Oliver, Nagayama Hall & Neuhaus 1993).

An estimate of the reoffending rates for persons convicted of sexual assault is available from a study conducted in Western Australia. Broadhurst and Maller (1991) followed up sex offenders released from prison between July 1985 and June 1987. During the study period, 238 "rape" and "sexual assault" offenders were released from prison. By the end of the period, 40 per cent of released sexual assault offenders had returned to prison, four per cent returned for the same type of sexual assault offence, and another four per cent returned for a different type of sex offence (Broadhurst & Maller 1991, pp. 46-7).

While adult males are the largest group of sex offenders, it is also important to acknowledge that both women and adolescents are capable of sexual offending. The information about women who offend sexually is extremely limited. However, recent research appears to confirm that sexual abuse by women is more common than previously understood (Koonin 1995). Research into adult offenders has shown consistently high levels of sex offenders who disclose that their offending behaviour began in adolescence. Until recently there was a general belief that sexual offending was committed by older men. Whilst recent research has begun to refute this idea, there is still a considerable amount that remains unknown about adolescent sex offenders.

Another important group which is often unrecognised is that of intellectually disabled sex offenders. Behaviour modification of intellectually disabled sex offenders is time-consuming, labour-intensive and challenging. Research has shown that effective treatment of intellectually disabled sex offenders is reliant on a comprehensive assessment of the individual offender's skills and deficits, and the nature of their offending behaviour. Also of importance to the effectiveness of treatment is their ability to maintain any positive treatment effects (Sargeant 1990).


Broadhurst, R. & Maller, R. 1990, "Sex offenders: 'Career criminal' or 'criminal career'?", in Sex Offenders: Management Strategies for the 1990s, Office of Corrections, Victorian Health Department, Melbourne.

Hiller, P.C. & Goddard, C.R. 1990, "The sexually abused child: Female and male victims compared", Children Australia, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 20-4.

Hoghughi, M. (ed.) 1997, Working with Sexually Abusive Adolescents, Sage Publications, London.

Koonin, R. 1995, "Breaking the last taboo: Child sexual abuse by female perpetrators", Australian Journal of Social Issues, vol. 30, no. 2, pp. 195-210.

Oliver, L., Nagayama Hall, G. & Neuhaus, S. 1993, "A comparison of the personality and background characteristics of adolescent sex offenders and other adolescent offenders", Criminal Justice and Behaviour, vol. 20, no. 4, pp. 359-70.

Salmelainen, P. & Coumarelos, C. 1993, "Adult sexual assault in New South Wales", Crime and Justice Bulletin, no. 20, New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Sydney.

Sargeant, D. 1990, "Staff attitudes to the sex offenders", Sex Offenders: Management Strategies for the 1990s, Office of Corrections, Victorian Health Department, Melbourne.

Weinrott, M. 1996, Juvenile Sexual Aggression: A Critical Review, Centre for the Study and Prevention of Violence, Boulder, Colorado.

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