Sex Offending And Criminal Mobility Research Paper

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For more than 60 years now, sex offenders have been the object of scrutinized attention by policy makers and the police (Barnes et al. 2009). However, it is only since 1994 that specific legislations regarding sex offenders have been passed throughout the United States to counter sex offender recidivism and alleviate community safety concerns. The Jacob Wetterling Act requires all states to track sex offenders through the use of registration systems. Such policy forces sex offenders to report to the authorities their home address. This was soon followed by Megan’s Law, which requires law enforcement to notify communities when a sex offender is returned to the area (Zevitz 2006). Through the use of different means (e.g., flyers, posters, public meetings, automated phone messages), the public is informed of the identity and the residential address of the sex offender integrating into their community, allowing for an informal network of surveillance. Residence restriction laws constitute the most recent type of policy specifically targeting sex offenders. Such policies restrict sex offenders from living within close proximity (e.g., between 1,000 and 2,500 ft) of places where children are typically present (e.g., schools, parks, playgrounds, bus stops), in order to prevent them from getting access and making direct contact with potential victims (Duwe et al. 2008). What is particular to these policies is the fact that they all share a common focus – that is, where the offender lives. Thus, the rationale for such policies is based on the same underlying assumption – that sex offenders are geographically stable, meaning that they do not travel when committing their crimes. But is this really the case? The current paper aims to address three related questions: (1) What do we know about sex offenders’ criminal mobility? (2) Is journey to crime an adequate measure of criminal mobility? (3) Are there any other ways to look at criminal mobility of sex offenders?

Criminal Mobility: The Case Of The Sex Offender

Most studies interested in the criminal mobility of offenders use the journey to crime as their main measure. These studies generally show that offenders travel a longer distance to commit property offense compared to violent crimes (see for instance Brantingham and Brantingham 1981). When looking at violent crimes in particular, a total of 21 studies were identified that examined crime trips of sex offenders in North American and European cities (Beauregard et al. 2005). For all of these studies, it is interesting to note that the crime trip distance traveled by different types of sex offenders varies between no distance traveled (the offender committing the crime at home) and 40 km. On average, the distance traveled by different types of sex offenders between their home base and the crime location was a little more than 2 miles.

Interestingly, some authors have attempted to further our understanding of the criminal mobility of sex offenders by examining two types of factors influencing their journey to crime: the offender and the offense characteristics. The underlying principle of the relationship between offender characteristics and criminal mobility is that these characteristics influence the cognitive map of individuals. According to Brantingham and Brantingham (1993), cognitive maps are a representation of the awareness of space, which consists of subjective images of an individual’s environment that are fundamental in determining the areas where the criminal’s offense will be carried out. Furthermore, cognitive maps vary with the characteristics of individuals. For instance, age is one of the characteristics associated with criminal mobility. Most studies of sex offenders that investigate the relationship between age and distance come to the same conclusion as for other types of criminals: Younger men tend to offend nearer to home (Warren et al. 1998). According to these studies, this difference could be attributed to a greater impulsivity in the offense behavior of younger offenders, a greater access to vehicles by older offenders, or simply because of the age-related development of the cognitive map. However, recent studies have not confirmed this age-distance relationship (see Rossmo et al. 2004).

There appears to be a clear relationship between race and the criminal mobility of sex offenders. Findings show that white rapists traveled farther than nonwhite offenders (Canter and Gregory 1994; Warren et al. 1998). Even if this relationship was once again not confirmed by Rossmo et al. (2004), it is hypothesized that this finding may reflect class distinctions or cultural differences in the cognitive mapping of space. Moreover, Gabbor and Gottheil (1984) found that those with a criminal record were substantially more likely to be transient than those without one, suggesting a positive relationship between criminal career and mobility. Others have suggested that sexual fantasy is another factor related to longer sexual crime travel distance. These offenders spend long periods of time prowling for victims, and sometimes record a diary of their movements. In addition, they are willing to travel long distances to commit a crime that will reflect their fantasies (Dietz et al. 1990). Finally, a study showed that psychopaths displayed greater geographic mobility than did nonpsychopaths (Hunter 2004). The psychopath’s impulsivity, short-term relationships, unstable employment, and need for stimulation/ proneness to boredom may predispose them to geographic mobility (Cooke 1998). Another explanation suggests that psychopaths frequently move locations, as their tendency to con and exploit others eventually becomes known and they are no longer able to take advantage of people in their surroundings.

As to the offense characteristics, Lebeau (1987a) focused on how the journey to rape varies as a function of the offender’s approach method. Results revealed that offenders traveled the shortest mean distance to assault their victims when they illegally entered the victim’s residence, suggesting that offenders travel shorter distances when using a method linked to crimes against property. In a different study, Canter and Gregory (1994) found that rapists who offend during the weekend travel farther than those who commit rape during a weekday and that rapists who attack outdoors traveled approximately 2.7 times farther to offend as those who raped indoor (e.g., in a house). Davies and Dale (1995) suggested also that rapists who target victims from a particular area (e.g., prostitutes from a red-light district), who commit sophisticated property offenses during a sexual assault, who spend large amounts of time roaming and using public transportation, and who are familiar with numerous neighborhoods (previous habitation, locations of significant people, current or past workplace locations), travel longer distances to commit their crimes. This was echoed by Warren et al. (1998) who found similar results in relation to the sophistication of the crime. Their results showed that rapists who had more extensive criminal antecedents, who used forced entry, and who burglarized the victim during the assault tended to travel farther. According to the authors, this could reflect a more generalized criminal motivation and a more experienced offender in terms of nonsexual crimes.

The research on the journey to crime of sex offenders has not only permitted to confirm that, as with other violent offenders, sex offenders do not travel long distances to commit their crime, but it has also allowed to examine the factors that could influence their criminal mobility. However, it appears that all the studies have taken for granted that journey to crime was the only and probably the most adequate measure of criminal mobility. Whether or not this is true, none of these studies have questioned the use of the journey to crime to measure their criminal mobility.

Journey To Crime: A Valid Measure Of Criminal Mobility?

Previous studies on the criminal mobility of sex offenders show that their journey to crime is mostly constant, being not very far from their home base. This information is not only useful for environmental criminology but also for criminal investigations, more specifically geographic profiling techniques (Rossmo 2000). However, relying solely on the measure of journey to crime to characterize their criminal mobility can be problematic for three main reasons.

First, the studies examining the journey to crime have all used the home location of the offender as the starting point of this crime trip. Although this is congruent with theoretical models such as the routine activity theory (Cohen and Felson 1979), such a measure does not take into account a crime trip that might have originated from the offender’s workplace for instance. A rapist could identify and target a victim while coming back from a friend’s house. Moreover, as Bernasco (2010) found, offenders are more likely to target former residential areas to commit their crimes if they lived there for a long time. Moreover, as mentioned by Michaud and Morselli (2011), homeless offenders and many street criminals may not have a fixed home address, therefore choosing to base their criminal activities from other social activity locations such as bars or pool halls (Rengert 1996). Again, as stated by Michaud and Morselli (2011), using the offender’s home as the exclusive platform from which crimes are committed is even more surprising given the fact that most people spent around half of their days outside home (see for instance Wikstro¨ m et al. 2010). Moreover, Pettiway (1995) is the only one to our knowledge who showed through interviews with crack users the true origin of the crack trip. Interestingly, he found that only 26 % of crack-purchasing trips originated from the user’s place of residence. The lack of studies taking into consideration other points of origin in the journey to crime might be partly explained by the fact that most of these studies rely exclusively on police data and other anchor points of the offender might not be known.

Second, journey to crime research suggests that the whole criminal event takes place all at the same location. Although this may be the case for property crimes such as burglary, the reality is often different for crimes where the victim is mobile (Beauregard et al. 2010). In crimes such as sexual assaults, the offender may encounter a victim at a certain location, decide to attack her at another location, take her to a different location to commit the assault, and take her to another location to release her, the so-called EAMD classification used in geographic profiling (Rossmo 2000; see also Lebeau 1987b for rape). Michaud and Morselli (2011) explain that the non-consideration of multiple crime sites in journey to crime research is problematic, given that it may distort the estimation of the criminal mobility involved in the process. To illustrate their point, they provide the example of an offender who encounters a woman in a bar, takes her to a hotel, rapes and kills the woman there, to finally go back to his place with the dead body in order to dispose of her body parts in garbage bags. If the journey to crime was calculated with this case, police data would record the address where the body parts were found (offender’s residence; distance-to-crime ¼ 0 mi), thus greatly underestimating the criminal mobility that was involved in the process. Such example is not unusual in sex-related crimes. For instance, it has been shown that sexual murderers dispose of the victim’s body on average 17.2 miles from the murder scene (H€akk€anen et al. 2007).

Third, research on criminal mobility seems to suggest that the concept of mobility can and should only be measured in terms of distance traveled. However, the measure of distance traveled represents only one dimension of the mobility concept – that is, the movements or the mobility performances (Canzler et al. 2008). However, offenders also present other “movements” that may characterize their criminal mobility. Using the same example presented above, an offender may travel from one location to another during the same event. For instance, some sexual murderers decide to move the victim’s body to a different location after the murder (Beauregard and Field 2008). Although such finding does not provide a measure of distance per se, it nonetheless provides some information on the mobility of the offender during the criminal event. This is not to suggest that the measure of journey to crime is not appropriate to examine criminal behavior and that this research is not important for our understanding of criminal mobility. However, this suggests that there is a need for criminology to look at complementary measures as well.

Alternative Measures Of Criminal Mobility In Sex Offending

In addition to the journey to crime measure, a few alternative methods to conceptualize criminal mobility have been used in the research on sex offenders. One such approach has been to classify sex offenders according to their criminal mobility patterns. Although using different labels (see, for instance, Canter and Larkin 1993; Rossmo 1997), these typologies can be grouped under two main categories: the geographically stable and the geographically mobile offenders (Beauregard et al. 2005). This typological approach is interesting as it presents other characteristics (e.g., offender characteristics, modus operandi) associated with each mobility pattern. However, such approach presents also certain limitations. The majority of these typologies have been identified intuitively, without being tested empirically, which carries problems of validity and reliability. Moreover, the types are mainly descriptive and offer little information to explain the criminal mobility patterns of offenders (Michaud and Beauregard 2010). Also, using typologies to classify criminal mobility patterns presents the same problem as with any other typology: They assume that crime-commission processes are stable instead of being dynamic (Beauregard et al. 2007).

One way to overcome these specific limitations is to conceptualize geographic mobility as the use of multiple locations for the purpose of repetitive sexual contact with the same victim. In their study, Leclerc, Wortley, and Smallbone (2010) set out to examine whether offending differences existed between perpetrators who used multiple locations for sexual contact and those who used a single location for the entire crime-commission process. Overall, the results demonstrate that mobile offenders are more likely to isolate their victims, use violence, involve the victim in several sexual episodes, abuse the victim for over a 1-year period, and make the victim participate and perform sexual behaviors on them during sexual episodes. The authors concluded that by examining mobility of pedophiles from a location angle rather than measures of distance and direction provides a different perspective on the crime-commission process of these offenders (Leclerc et al. 2010).

Following Leclerc et al. (2010) study, Beauregard and Busina (2013) used a similar approach with serial sex offenders. They proposed that criminal mobility can be defined as the number of changes of location during the criminal event. As discussed previously, rape events present different stages – that is, encounter, attack, crime, and victim release – that may be associated with different locations. Although some sex offenders decide to commit all their action at the same location (i.e., stable offender with zero change of location), other mobile offenders may change location up to three times during the same event. As criminal mobility can be interpreted as a purposive action necessary to successfully commit a crime, the aim of their study was to predict the criminal mobility patterns exhibited in serial rape events from situational and modus operandi characteristics. The situational characteristics of the rape events and the modus operandi used in serial sex crimes might explain why some offenders need to be mobile and change location during the criminal event while others do not. Using negative binomial regression, the authors found that events which involve child or adolescent victims, committed during daytime, when the offender did not use pornography prior to crime, and where victim resistance is observed, should display more criminal mobility. Moreover, when the victim is selected, the victim is alone when approached by the offender, and the crime is characterized by sexual penetration and a lack of premeditation are exhibiting more criminal mobility. These results point toward the fact that criminal mobility is a goal-oriented action taken by serial sex offenders in order to complete successfully their crime and to avoid detection and apprehension (Beauregard and Busina 2013).

Rossmo, Lu, and Fang (2011) examined the spatial-temporal patterns of a group of reoffending parolees (many of which were sex offenders) on the Florida Department of Corrections electronic monitoring and global positioning system program. Their travel over a period of at least 8 days, including the offending day, was mapped and analyzed. This allowed analyzing the spatial activity patterns of criminals prior to, during, and after offending. At the aggregate level, results showed that the mean distance traveled 37.8 mi (min =3.5 mi, max= 79.5 mi), covering an area of 27.2 mi2.

The average time spent traveling was 10.6 h (min=1.0 h, max =15.8 h), compared to an average of 12.4 h spent at home (min = 4.5 h, max = 20.9 h). On average, these offenders traveled 4.1 sites during their daily travel (min = 2.0, max = 6.5). When disaggregating these results, the findings are also very interesting, especially to further our knowledge on criminal mobility. Rossmo et al. (2011) described the spatial movements of a sex offender. This offender visited the offense location twice in the week before the crime. His movements started late in the day and went through to late in the night or early in the morning of the next day. The analysis revealed also that his routine began with a trip from his home to an activity site northwest of his residence and that he passed by the crime location for the first time during the study period, but did not stop. Moreover, their analysis showed that the actions of the offender were different when he next visited the site. On that day, the offender passed the crime location again on his way to his routine nighttime activity sites northwest of his home but he made extra turns and stops. The same travel pattern was repeated the day of the offense. As mentioned by Rossmo et al. (2011), “a better understanding on this level can assist practitioners and academics in several ways, such as providing early warning cues for offending, better knowledge of how criminals hunt for their targets, and an enhanced understanding of offender spatial behavior” (p. 39).

Finally, another alternative to the traditional journey to crime measure of criminal mobility has been suggested by Michaud and Beauregard (2010). They conceptualized the criminal mobility of offenders as having two distinct dimensions: the criminal migration – which is the effective distance traveled by a mobile offender between the activity spaces in which he commits crimes – and the criminal nomadism – which corresponds to the offender propensity to change the activity space in which he commits crimes, either by exploring new activity spaces or by traveling back to former ones. Instead of looking only at one criminal event, Michaud and Beauregard (2010) consider the entire criminal career of their sex offenders. As such, they have analyzed 3,003 criminal events (sex and non-sex crimes) committed by 461 sex offenders. Their findings showed that in terms of criminal migration, only a third of the sex offenders traveled a short distance (<150 km) during their criminal career and approximately one quarter traveled more than 1,000 km. As to the criminal nomadism, one third of the sample changed activity space in at least 70 % of their criminal career. In order to understand what could explain this criminal mobility, they examined different offender characteristics. Their findings showed that sex offenders who are psychopaths, Caucasian, educated, and specialized in sex offending present more nomadism than the sex offenders who are not.


Recent legislations specific to sex offenders – whether it is registration, community notification, or residence restriction – have all focused on one aspect of the crime-commission process: location. The rationale for such a focus is that by knowing where sex offenders live and by forbidding them to reside near certain location, we can prevent sexual recidivism. Although in theory, this all makes sense, all these approaches make the same mistake in assuming that criminals – more specifically sex offenders – are geographically stable and are not likely to travel when contemplating a criminal opportunity. Research shows the opposite. Sex offenders are rational individuals who may decide to travel to a different location either to avoid detection and apprehension, to complete successfully the sexual assault, or both. This suggests that even if a sex offender cannot live near a park because of a residence restriction law, nothing prevents him from leaving his residence, going to the park to encounter potential victims, and take them back to his place to sexually assault them. Studies have already shown that these legislations are ineffective to prevent sexual recidivism (e.g., Duwe et al. 2008). What has been presented here contribute further to this conclusion by showing how criminal mobility is an adaptive response to the criminal situation aiming to decrease the risks of detection and apprehension, while maximizing the chances of successfully completing the crime (e.g., obtaining sexual gratification, being able to perform sexual penetration actions).

Moreover, although journey to crime research has been helpful to the understanding of the geography of crime and to the development of investigative tools such as geographic profiling, this unique measure of criminal mobility is no longer adequate to capture the real spatial movement of offenders when committing crimes. New ways to investigate and conceptualize criminal mobility in sex offenders have been suggested which, it is hoped, will spark some interest in academics involved in the crime and place research for other types of crimes as well. The research on criminal mobility needs to be extended in order to investigate additional aspects that journey to crime has overlooked. In addition to what has been presented, two interesting concepts could further our understanding of criminal mobility. The first concept comes from Frank, Andresen, and Felson’s (2012) study who found strong evidence for geodiversity (i.e., variations in the amount of area covered by various crimes depending on the variations of criminal opportunity) in cases of co-offending or co-victimization. The second concept of interest, which appears even more important to consider is directionality (Bernasco and Block 2009). Although it has been under-researched by environmental criminologists, some research has shown that directional knowledge is important for spatial decision making (Frank et al. 2012).


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