Post #239

800 words; 4 minutes to read

Summary: Current practices on responding to sex offences would do more to reduce recidivism if they were more consistent with the available evidence .   

Sex offenders are probably the most reviled group among all those convicted of crimes, even though the category includes a very wide array of behaviours.  They are also subject to conditions that other people with criminal convictions do not face, no matter what their crimes, such as the many restrictions associated with being on the sex offender registry.  Even within prisons people labelled sex offenders can face ostracization and violence.

It would seem, then, that finding ways to reduce recidivism in this group would be a high priority.  However that is not necessarily the case, as shown in a recent meta-analysis of studies by Pamela Yates  and Drew Kingston.

They conclude that we know more and more about measures that would reduce recidivism in this group, but that this knowledge is not being used enough in practice.

We conclude that the evidence base for treatment has advanced considerably, with additional studies on treatment effectiveness and research examining the content and orientation of treatment, but that actual practice has been slower to change.

Treatment works

It is always hard to show that a particular approach to changing behaviour is effective.  This is in large part because it is hard to get consistency in any activity that involves different people in different settings. But a substantial amount of research has shown that treatment programs for people convicted of sex offences are effective in reducing recidivism in this group.  Stronger effects were found for moderate- to high-risk offenders (because persons who are low risk are highly unlikely to reoffend whether treated or not), individualized treatment compared with group programs, and treatment delivered in the community rather than in jails.  Overall, treatment programs were found to be cost-effective, with one Canadian study showing a return of more than $6 for each $1 invested.


Canada has officially embraced an approach to treatment for people who commit crimes, including sex crimes, called RNR, which stand for ‘Risks/Needs/Responsivity’.  The idea behind RNR, which was developed in Canada, is that intervention is most likely to reduce recidivism when services (1) target individuals who are at moderate and higher risk to reoffend (i.e., the risk principle); (2) target changeable risk factors linked to recidivism (i.e., the need principle); and, (3) tailor methods of delivery for maximum benefit for individual offenders.  RNR is the official model of treatment in Canadian prisons, and is widely used around the world.

RNR has shown considerable success in a range of studies, with higher quality programs found to be more effective and more cost-effective.

However, as so often, theory is not the same as reality.  As this study reports: …we found low rates of adherence to the RNR model despite decades of research supporting its application and its effectiveness… One comprehensive survey of sexual offender treatment in North America, noted that adherence to the RNR model with adult sexual offenders ranged from 0% to 37% of organisations.

As one example of the variance, many programs spend a great deal of time targeting such factors as self-esteem, personal distress, and empathy, or responsivity factors such as trauma or denial that have not been found to be associated with risk or predictive of recidivism.


Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) is another Canadian success story in this area.  CoSA programs have been offered as a community-based intervention based on restorative justice principles for individuals who are at higher risk to reoffend.  Community volunteers create a support group whose focus is on assisting the individual to reintegrate into the community. The program has been used widely across Canada and in several other countries, and has many evaluations have shown positive results.  However although CoSA is vastly less expensive than more prosecution and imprisonment, the Canadian government has not been willing to provide the small amount of money to keep it operating consistently across the country.  At the moment, many CoSA programs are at risk of closing due to lack of funding.

Still too punitive

In contrast to these proven approaches, most policies around sex offending in Canada are still far too punitive.  We particularly expressed concern with such practices as providing intensive services to low-risk offenders when these individuals can be most effectively served with routine supervision or minimal intervention… Persons rated as low risk do not require treatment or continuing supervision.  We also noted the continued use of the relapse prevention (RP) without convincing evidence of its effectiveness…

We noted that sanctions, such as sex offender registries and notification, were overemphasised in practice and that these were not consistent with evidence-based practice.

The study also concludes that prisons are not the best places for therapeutic programs.  There appears to be mounting evidence that treatment delivered in prisons may not impact sexual recidivism or may be less effective than when it is delivered in the community.

Public discourse on sex offences continues to be highly punitive while the research evidence says that a positive orientation and practices that are respectful, relational, empathic, and motivational, has led to greater effectiveness of treatment.


About this blog: The John Howard Canada blog is intended to support greater public understanding of criminal justice issues.  Blog content does not necessarily represent the views of John Howard Canada.  All blog material may be reproduced freely for any non-profit purpose as long as the source is acknowledged.  We welcome comments (moderated).






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