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This is an edited and modified version of a paper written by Prof. Belinda Winder and Prof. Nicholas Blagden which appeared in The Conversation. The original paper had more discussion of the UK context. The authors have reviewed this version.
We are both involved in a new charity in Britain which will offer support, mentoring and skill development to people leaving prison who have committed sex offences. The aim is to keep communities safer and reduce reoffending through reintegration – and research shows this approach can be an effective way of achieving this.
But the announcement of this program was met with concern and anger from the public and some victims of abuse.
It’s vital that survivors and victims are given the support, care and treatment they need to come to terms with what has happened to them, and to find some healing. Yet, preventing further victims being created and more lives being ruined is a huge social challenge.
The scale of the problem
People committing sex offences make up a significant portion of those in jail or prison. Although people who commit sex offences have a lower reoffending rate than most others leaving prison, public concern about this group remains high.
Society needs to engage seriously with how to reintegrate those who have offended and to stop future offending. The way to do this is by considering the evidence and understanding what does and doesn’t work. But, there is one huge obstacle standing in the way – public opinion and perceptions around this sensitive, emotive and often traumatic topic. More public support for rehabilitation could assist with reintegration which in turn helps keep communities safer.
What doesn’t work
There are numerous examples of unproven methods used in the rehabilitation of those with sexual convictions. Such practices tend to be based on intuitive beliefs such as it “feels right”, but there is little evidence they reduce reoffending.
Some of the traditional approaches to working with people with sexual convictions have an unproven evidence base. These include programmes that focus on encouraging victim empathy and tackling denial, rather than on skills to lead a good and better life. While it may feel right to get a person to admit to their offending, for example, it’s not related to reducing reoffending.
Notification schemes that enable members of the public to request information about people who may be in contact with their child, also “feel” like a good idea. They may bring comfort to people, but the balance of evidence suggests they are ineffective.
For those with sexual convictions, prison can be a brutal experience dominated by a struggle for survival. While the public are concerned that once somebody has committed a sex offence they will always be a danger, this is not the case; the great majority of those convicted of such a crime will never be charged with another one.
While it may seem publicly appealing to put convicted sex offenders in prison for long periods and to make that experience hostile, this doesn’t work to reduce risk of reoffending and may instead increase their risk by increasing social isolation. Our own research found that prisons that only house those with sexual convictions allowed people the “headspace” to change. Research has also shown that prisons with a more therapeutic climate are more likely to help those with sexual convictions address their offending behaviour and make personal changes – which could reduce reoffending.
What does work
Some of the key factors that lead people to reoffend are social and emotional isolation, emotional immaturity, and general problems relating to others. Having a job, or something meaningful to do in your life, can help to protect people against a downward spiral that leads to sexual reoffending.
Research shows that interventions with people with sexual convictions appear to be more effective in the community than in prison, which is why there is a real need for better community reintegration and rehabilitation.
This is why initiatives such as Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) have been shown to work. In these interventions, between three and five trained volunteers provide social, emotional and practical support for high-risk sexual offenders. Studies done on CoSA in Canada have shown huge decreases – up to 80% – in reoffending compared to others not in the program.
Sexual abuse can destroy lives and devastate families. Victims of sexual crimes should be given access to the help and support they need for their recovery as a priority. But funding is also needed for programmes and interventions that can prevent future victims. “Helping” sex offenders may feel like a bitter pill to swallow, but if the prescription is based on robust evidence, the end result will be fewer victims of sexual crime. This is something that benefits everyone.
Dr. Belinda Winder is a Professor in Forensic Psychology and Heads the Sexual Offences, Crime and Misconduct Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University.
Dr. Nicholas Blagden is an Associate Professor in Forensic Psychology and is the Associate Head of the Sexual Offences Crime and Misconduct Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University in England.