When Sex Offender Treatment Works

When Sex Offender Treatment Works

625,000 Americans are actively trading in child sexual abuse images.  That’s a lot of people, mostly men.  Many of them – 59% according to a University of New Hampshire study – are or were married. When these child predators are caught, they often leave a trail of devastated family members, friends and communities behind.

Often good people wonder – can’t we get the sex offender therapy so they can return to their lives?  Isn’t there something that can be done for them so they can come home?  Therapy can be helpful, but probably not in the way these people might hope.

Clearly, in the vast majority of cases, treatment simply will not work to change anything.  First of all, treatment cannot be used outside of prison, because it involves admitting crimes.  Once a crime is admitted, a therapist must report it to the authorities.  A sex offender can never truly be honest with his therapist in the world outside of prison, and cannot benefit from treatment.  Therefore, treatment for sex offenders can only be conducted in prison.

Ye only a tiny fraction of sex offenders are ever caught.  Once in jail, therapy is not mandatory, nor often welcomed by them , and certainly makes no promises to reduce long-term recidivism rates .  Even a 2007 study of members of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers states that 63% of professionals reported “little hope for a cure,” and 88% of professionals fear “recidivism after treatment.”   Relapse prevention, a “cornerstone” of treatment efforts for the past 20 years has not been proven effective.  In fact, “one of the few authoritative studies of the method, conducted in California from 1985 to 2001, found that those who entered relapse prevention treatment were slightly more likely to offend again than those who got no therapy at all.”

The New York Times relates that other treatment schemes, like using anti-androgens to control sexual impulses, are quick attempts at fixes that do not address the underlying emotional problems and impulses that drive child molesters.  “I’ve had numerous situations where they say they are working just fine,” says Dr. Jesus Padilla, a clinical psychologist at Atascadero State Hospital, “only to catch them having sex with each other or engaging in deviant sexual fantasies even though their testosterone level was down to zero.”

A Canadian Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness senior research official found that “those driven by deviant sexual interests, like pedophiles and exhibitionists” are the most likely to reoffend.   Pedophiles are also incredibly manipulative, and are often successful in deceiving their therapists.  According to Douglas Carlin, a convicted rapist who completed treatment and was released in 2006 in Florida, “Most of those guys, they are just faking it to make it.  They’re just waiting to get released so they can go right back to what they were doing.”

Civil commitment of sex offenders after their prison terms have ended is expensive and programs receive little oversight.  Sex is often rampant among offenders and sometimes even between offenders and staff.  And civil commitment also costs four times more than extending prison sentences, according to an investigation by the New York Times:

“The treatment regimens are expensive and largely unproven, and there is no way to compel patients to participate.  Many simply do not show up for their sessions on their lawyers’ advice – treatment often requires them to recount crimes, even those not known to law enforcement – and spend their time instead gardening, watching television or playing video games.  The cost of the programs is virtually unchecked and growing, with states spending nearly $450 million on them this year.  The annual price of housing a committed sex offender averages more than $100,000 compared with about $26,000 a year for keeping someone in prison.”

Victim advocates suggest that it would be more effective and less expensive to give sex offenders longer sentences, prevent plea deals with prosecutors, and mandate treatment during incarceration.   Leroy Hendricks, a convicted child molester in Kansas, remains locked up in a civil commitment program at the cost of $185,000 per year (8 times the cost of keeping him in prison) because he says, “I sure don’t want to hurt anybody again,” but says he could not ensure the safety of children in his presence.  “The only way to guarantee that is to die.”

Sex offender treatment may never stop a predator from hurting a child again, but it can work.  Here’s how.  When a sex offense results in conviction, it is often the case that the offender does not serve the rest of his life in prison.  However, if given treatment in prison, the sex offender can possibly realize the depth of the damage he has done to his loved ones, and especially his victims.

If he truly understands what he has done, and possesses humanity and courage, he may decide to admit to all of the sex offenses he has committed and the victims who are silently suffering because of his actions.  In one instance related by one of our mental health advisors, a relatively young child molester decided to do just that.

Through therapy in prison, he realized that his victims needed help. He admitted his crimes against them, and was subsequently convicted to additional sex crimes that put him behind bars for the rest of his life.

Although therapy in prison may never be able to fix or to stop child molesters, it can play a role in keeping children and neighborhoods safe.


* “The overwhelming majority (of sex offenders) choose not to entire the (Atascadero treatment) program.”  Littlefield, Dana.  “Can sex predators be reformed?  Rehab program has little participation, few success stories.”  The San Diego Union-Tribune, May 22, 2006 p. A1.

* “After a 12-year follow-up period of sex offenders, no differences were observed in the rates of sexual (21.1% vs. 21.8%), violent (42.9% vs. 44.5%) or general (any) recidivism (56.6% vs. 60.4%) for treated and untreated groups, respectively.”  Hanson R. Karl.  “Evaluating Community Sex Offender Treatment Programs:  A 12-Year Follow-Up of 724 Offenders.”  Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, Apr 2004.  (2) “We conclude that the (treatment) program did not influence propensities for sexual and violent recidivism.”  Seager, James and Debra Jellicoe and Gurmeet K. Dhaliwal.  “Refusers, Dropouts, and Completers:  Measuring Sex Offender Treatment Efficacy.”  International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, Vol. 48, No. 5, 600-612 (2004).

* Engle, Michael J. and Josephy A. McFalls, Jir and Bernard J. Gallagher III.  “Attitudes of Members of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers Towards Treatment, Release and Recidivism of Violent Sex Offenders:  An Exploratory Study.”  Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, Vol 44, Issue 4, 2007. pp. 17-24.

* Goodnough, Abby and Monica Davey.  “For Sex Offenders, a Dispute Over Therapy’s Benefits.”  The New York Times, Mar 6, 2007.

* ibid.

* ibid.

* ibid.

* Davey, Monica and Abby Goodnough.  “Doubts Rise as States Hold Sex Offenders After Prison.”  New York Times, Mar 4, 2007.

* Ibid.

* Ibid.

Nov, 30, 2009