chapter  9
Crime switching in polymorphic sex offenders: stability and change in offending pathways across sex offenses
Pages 27

The issue of criminal versatility has been in the spotlight of criminological research for several decades now. “Criminal versatility” refers to the phenomenon in which repeat offending by a given offender takes many forms, such as drug dealing, theft, assault, or sex offending. Conversely, “crime specialization” refers to the phenomenon in which repeat offending by a given offender is limited to a single form, such as sex offending. At first glance, criminal versatility and crime specialization appear to be two phenomena at the opposite end of a continuum. In other words, some offenders are versatile and others tend to specialize in a particular crime type. Over the years, criminological research has typically taken the form of longitudinal analysis of the sequence of offending, to determine whether offenders are versatile or specialists, and whether these patterns vary across offender type. These research questions have generated a plethora of empirical research dating back to the early 1970s. This interest for the issue of versatility-specialization can be explained by the important underlying policy implications. Should crime policies and penal measures aimed specifically at convicted offenders be offending-specific or not? Should the criminal justice system respond differently to offenders given the nature of their past and recent offending? For example, the criminal justice system can offer a general or a specific treatment program to incarcerated offenders based on the nature of their offending. The versatility-specialization issue is important because if the goals of treatment programs offered to versatile offenders are too specific, these treatment programs will have a very limited impact on offenders’ criminal careers over time. Conversely, if treatment goals for specialized offenders are too general, such programs will have a limited impact on preventing specific forms of offending. The same issue has been raised with respect to community surveillance of sex offenders. Should conditions imposed on offenders during their parole/probation be offense-specific (e.g., staying away from parks, in the case of child molesters)? Such issues are

not new, and have generated a significant amount of theoretical, empirical, and methodological debate among scholars over the years, which has led some to refer to this issue as the “versatility-specialization debate”. The current chapter revisits this debate in the context of sex offending. More specifically, it describes the offending pathways of a group of sex offenders that represents a challenge for the criminal justice system: the polymorphic offenders.