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Sex Offender Treatment: A Waste of Time and Effort?


Helen is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in years 1 and 3.

Earlier this year, the Prison Service announced that the Core Sex Offender Treatment Programme and the Extended Sex Offender Treatment Programme would be withdrawn with immediate effect. Offenders in the middle of programmes would be able to complete, but no new programmes would start. No explanation was given. A new suite of programmes, focussed on building strengths for the future rather than analysing past offending, had already been developed but a gradual roll-out had been planned rather than a sudden switch. There were many murmurings among Parole Board members. Why the sudden withdrawal? How would sex offenders now be able to demonstrate that they had reduced their risk? Where was the evidence that the new programmes were any better? We suspected that there had been an unfavourable evaluation, but no one had seen the research.

The truth came to light via The Mail on Sunday on 25th June. There had, indeed, been an unfavourable evaluation of the Sex Offender Treatment Programme (SOTP). When compared to matched offenders who had not completed treatment, those who had done so were more likely to re-offend. The Ministry of Justice had withdrawn the programme but had not published the research. They finally did so on 30th June.

The decision to sit on the research was not helpful. The first information we received about it was filtered through the eyes  of The Mail on Sunday. They claimed that “Prisoners who take the rehabilitation courses are at least 25% more likely to be convicted of further sex crimes that those who do not.” This is not true. Of the 2,562 treated sex offenders included in the study, 10% went on to commit another sexual offence. The figure for the matched untreated offenders was 8%. 90% of sex offenders, treated or untreated, did not reoffend within the follow-up period (average 8.2 years). But it is true that treatment made people worse. Two percentage points is a small difference, but with such a large sample size it is significant. The research is robust and well-designed. A randomised control trial would have been more robust, but the matched comparisons in this study were done thoroughly and every attempt was made to take account of possible confounding variables. You can read the study for yourself here:

and the Mail‘s interpretation of it here:

So why did treatment make offenders more likely to reoffend? At this stage we really don’t know. The authors of the research make some suggestions but they are only speculating. Perhaps talking about sex offending in a group setting “normalises” offending. Perhaps groupwork provides offenders with opportunities to network. Perhaps these programmes promoted shame  in offenders which ultimately reduced self-esteem and self-efficacy and reduced the chances of building a positive and fulfilling future. The new programmes draw more from the desistance literature. They include much less offence analysis and are more focussed on building strengths for a positive future. They may be more likely to succeed but we will not know for several years until we have had the chance to evaluate them.

So where does that leave the offenders and staff who have worked hard on these programmes over the years? Sex offender treatment is expensive, tiring and takes a psychological toll on those delivering it. A prison officer once told me that delivering SOTP was the best and most fulfilling thing he had ever done, but also the most damaging. A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a former colleague who used to run SOTP and we reflected, “Was all of that effort for nothing?” We have to take the research seriously, learn the lessons and move on. There is no denying the findings. But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. SOTP was based on the best research available at the time. It was modified and developed over the years in the light of emerging research. It might have “worked” for some participants, even if it made others worse. We assessed and came to understand a large number of sex offenders. As a result of that work and this evaluation, we now have a better understanding of what might work to reduce reoffending in the future. Of course, there is an argument that all attempts at rehabilitation are futile, that people choose to behave as they wish and we should not try to manipulate them to change. But perhaps that’s a subject for another blog!

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