Prosecution or Prevention, Which is Most Effective Against CSA?

Is criminal prosecution (catching and jailing offenders after they offend) or a preventative approach (focused on preventing new offenses) most effective in combatting child sexual abuse (CSA) overall? Let’s leave aside for now the other reasons for which we might want to favor either prosecution (such as our desire for retribution) or prevention (such as harms that laws putatively aimed at child abusers cause to others, such as sex workers), and address that question purely on the basis of harm reduction.

You might think that a preventative approach would be better simply because it is preferable that an offence never happened, than that it did but the person responsible got caught. However, that’s a bit simplistic, in the sense that if you catch and prosecute an offender, you may also be preventing their future offences, and the future offences of those whom their prosecution may deter. And certainly, both prevention and prosecution are needed in some measure.

So the question comes down to an empirical one: based on all relevant factors (such as the conviction rate of child sex offenders, their recidivism rate with or without intervention, and the effectiveness of prevention efforts aimed at non-offenders), is it true that more children are saved from abuse per additional dollar invested in prevention (including rehabilitation), than if that same dollar was invested in the investigation and prosecution of offenders?

As an technology activist, this question is of very practical importance to me. It boils down to a question like, would I be better off spending my time working on supporting the surveillance state, or would I be better off spending it helping people to use technology and policy to prevent children from being abused to begin with? Phrased in that way, you can understand my preference for the latter option.

But regardless of my preferences, there can only be one correct answer to the simple question, which option actually prevents more offences?

This mattered to me so much that I have been looking into it over the past few months, even though it is not in my area of expertise (my contribution, if I have one, is in communicating recommendations that flow from others’ research to policymakers, rather than producing original research).

It turns out it is not as simple a question as I hoped. There is a lot of variation between different approaches to prevention, and a lot of gaps in our collective knowledge of the effectiveness of possible preventative interventions. There is also a lot of variation between the effectiveness of some prosecution initiatives compared with others; some (such as SESTA) may actually have a negative impact on child safety, whereas others (making it easier to report sexual crime) have a much better bang for buck.

Moreover, if investing in prevention is (overall) a better approach today, that doesn’t mean that it will always be better than investing in prosecution. Changes in the law or technology could alter this balance. But that too requires research; if we are going to invest in new laws, technologies, or interventions, regardless of whether they are preventative or prosecutory, it should be in those that will have the greatest impact on child safety.

In other words, the not so simple answer to my simple question is, “it depends.” Based on the laws and interventions that I’ve looked at, it does seem that prevention has an edge, and this is based mainly on the demographics of the problem; since CSA occurs mainly within the home, prosecuting child sex offenders is difficult and expensive, and since the recidivism rate is low, it doesn’t prevent that much future offending. By comparison, reducing rates of offending within larger populations of non-offenders (through education, counselling, and collaboration with platforms) is relatively cheap and effective.

To reiterate, that’s only considering the harms to children; there are additional reasons to favor prevention that I’m not factoring in here, such as the relatively lesser negative impact of preventative approaches on the civil liberties of others.

Unfortunately, there isn’t one single source that I can point to to demonstrate the conclusion that investment in CSA prevention is (in general) better than cure; the research that exists on this point is scattered and incomplete, and it doesn’t all point in the same direction. Unless I’ve missed it (my comments are open), there would be value in a comprehensive, accessible, and up-to-date meta-study that pulls together all of the available data that we have, and clearly indicates the data that we don’t.