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The problems with the Supreme Court’s influential remark on sex offender recidivism

The basis for much of American jurisprudence and legislation about sex offenders was rooted in an offhand and unsupported statement in a mass-market magazine, not a peer-reviewed journal.

So says Adam Liptak in his “Sidebar” column in today’s New York Times, as he explains why there is “vanishingly little evidence” for the Supreme Court’s oft-cited reference to sex offender recidivism being “frightening and high,” Smith v. Doe, 538 U.S. 84, 103 (2003), quoting McKune v. Lile, 536 U.S. 24, 34 (2002). Should you ever find yourself faced with an argument citing the Court’s phrase, Liptak provides a nice explanation about why the statement is so dubious. And, of course, since those cases—not to mention the 1986 Psychology Today article that seems to be the ultimate source for the Court’s statement—there’s been plenty of peer-reviewed research showing recidivism is far lower than is commonly imagined.

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