Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Sexual Abuse

Child Sex Abuse: We Need Prevention, Not Just Punishment

Study shows the cost of incarcerating adults convicted of child sex crimes.

Key points

  • New study finds incarcerating adults for sex crimes against kids in state and federal prisons costs $5.4 billion annually.
  • FY 2022 federal funding for child sexual abuse prevention research is only $2 million.
  • Child sexual abuse is indisputably a criminal justice problem and a public health problem and requires proactive as well as reactive strategies.
  • We need more federal funding to develop, evaluate, and disseminate effective sex crime prevention strategies to get out in front of this crisis.

Child sexual abuse costs the U.S. billions per year for incarceration. Yet for every $3,125 we spend on punishment, we spend just $1 on prevention research—not nearly enough to reduce the number of kids being harmed.

Emiliano Bar/Unsplash
Photo by Emiliano Bar on Unsplash
Source: Emilio Bar/Unsplash

Most people agree that it’s important to not just respond to child sexual abuse, but to prevent it from ever occurring in the first place. Prevention reduces harm to kids, and we all want kids to be safe. It’s as simple as that.

But getting adequate federal funding to research child sexual abuse prevention hasn’t been as simple. Since 2019, the U.S. federal government has increased its investment in child sexual abuse prevention research from essentially $0 to $2 million. When I speak with policymakers, they agree about the need to prevent child sexual abuse, but many also say there’s no new money available and cite federal deficits and budget caps.

No Check We Won't Write

My latest research, published March 23 in the journal Sexual Abuse, examines one place federal and state governments do put substantial resources to address child sexual abuse—incarceration.

My colleagues and I estimate that the U.S. spends $5.4 billion to incarcerate about 144,453 people for sex crimes against children each year and stands to spend nearly $49 billion to keep them incarcerated until their projected release dates. This includes $5 billion for federal prisoners, $33 billion for state prisoners, and $10.7 billion for inmates in sex offender civil commitment facilities.

When you consider that most people imprisoned for sex crimes against children remain imprisoned for about eight years (and much longer in civil commitment facilities), this means that during the same length of time as their $50 billion incarceration, we will spend only $16 million on child sexual prevention research. For every $1 we spend on prevention, we spend $3,125 on punishment.

These costs are just extraordinary. There seems to be no limit to the money we will put towards after-the-fact criminal justice interventions when it comes to child sexual abuse; yet almost no check we will write when it comes to prevention.

Why Incarceration Isn't Enough

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys under age 18 experience sexual abuse during childhood. Research suggests that about 12 percent of the world’s children will experience some form of sexual abuse before they turn 18. Kids who experience sexual abuse have a greater risk of mental, physical, and behavioral health problems associated with increased morbidity and mortality and reduced quality of life. My earlier research found that the U.S. economic burden of child sexual abuse was $9.3 billion in 2015, costing each victim more than $280,000 in lost earnings and other economic impacts over their lifetime.

I’ve spent more than 30 years researching child sexual abuse as a preventable public health problem and I agree that incarceration can be a reasonable punishment for adults who sexually abuse children. But incarceration does not prevent harm. Child sexual abuse is indisputably a criminal justice problem as well as a public health problem. We need to develop, evaluate, and disseminate effective sex crime prevention strategies to get out in front of this crisis. These proactive efforts—like reactive strategies including incarceration—also require real resources.

The Need to Fund Prevention

We have made progress toward funding prevention efforts. Federal FY 2020 and 2021 funding—which was allocated to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—supports five U.S. research teams evaluating child sexual abuse prevention strategies, including online, school-based, and community-based programs.

However, even with this year’s $2 million in funding, it is not enough to make a real difference in child sexual abuse rates. Last April, Congressman Frank Mrvan led a letter to the House Appropriations Committee signed by 31 members of Congress in support of increasing child sexual abuse prevention research funding to the goal amount of $10 million. Reaching $10 million in annual prevention funding would allow for a critical mass of research to flourish across the U.S., helping ensure that we develop an array of effective prevention strategies that work across our diverse country.

If we really want to keep children safe, and everyone does, then we really have to invest in prevention.


Letourneau, E. J., Travis, W. M., Malone, L., & Sun, Yi. (2022). No Check We Won't Write: A Report on the High Cost of Sex Offender Incarceration. Sexual Abuse.

Letourneau, E.J., Brown, D.S., Fang, X., Hassan, A., & Mercy, J.A. (2018). The economic burden of child sexual abuse in the United States. Child Abuse & Neglect, 79, 413-422.,chiabu.2018.02.020

More from Elizabeth Letourneau, PhD
More from Psychology Today