Miscarriages of JusticeUK

Sex offender treatment courses are not the answer

'A good man in the eyes of God would possess very different qualities from a good man in the eyes of Hitler. Moreover, one person's sense is often another person's nonsense'

A response to: 'Sex offender treatment courses are not the answer'

Charles Hanson 

As far back as 2002 Johann Hari writing in the New Statesmen (25 March 2002) 'The Sad Truth About Child Molesters', wrote of his own research and findings following a study of a 1998 Home Office report in which he identified negative features of the Sex Offending Treatment Programme after sitting in on one such Cognitive Therapy type course at Maidstone Prison;

"Cognitive therapy can actually enhance the self-knowledge and effectiveness of some very dangerous individuals. At the end of the programme very few men were giving test answers that were in line with the 'man in the street'.

Moreover, the study also revealed that those who had been released had 'rapidly deteriorating relapse prevention skills."

Moreover, where many offenders were giving what is referred to as 'victim narrative' or phrases relating to victim empathy and remorse, they were more likely than not the kind of phraseology 'drilled' into them.

Where Mr Hari had the opportunity of speaking to offenders who had completed the SOTP he was disturbed to find that in using all the psychology jargon and phrases they also spoke in a muddled way with factual contradictions about their crimes.

In a separate study, the psychologist J.K. Marques and three colleagues wrote about their findings in the 'Criminal Justice and Behaviour Journal'. They had monitored sex offenders who were part of a very extensive programme of both individual and group 'treatment', and after they were released of a year long aftercare programme. These offenders were given the highest-quality treatment known for sex offenders and it might have been hoped that there would be impressive results.

Yet the 'treatment' made no difference at all. Those who had been through the programme were just as likely to reoffend as those with no 'treatment' at all.

One difficulty with the research into the SOTP is that researchers do not use a control group (sex offenders who do not do the SOTP) thereby having a group to compare with which might indicate the effectiveness of the programme. The result is that such studies are of little value and yet are used and relied on to promote the use of the SOTP. Where there does exist evidence of the ineffectiveness of the SOTP it is matched by how so called success rates are measured and for sure it is easy to produce figures which appear to show that treatment of offenders reduces recidivism when actually the figures show nothing of the kind. It is also very difficult to do proper research on the effectiveness of treatment so that the figures can be confidently interpreted as meaning what they appear to show.

There is also a need to be sure that any difference in the reconviction rates of those who have completed courses and a comparison group assuming that the groups do not have any kind of inherent bias are due to the effect of the 'treatment' course rather than just being due to chance.

In measuring the success of courses that supposedly address these problems, The Ministry of Justice have guidelines for evaluating 'treatment' programmes which recommends that, "the strongest design for an evaluation is random allocation of subjects and should be considered and chosen if possible."

However the practicalities make this very difficult to achieve in the prison setting.

There have been a few research studies undertaken abroad which adopt this policy but none in the UK using the principles of Random Control Groups. (RCTs).

It may seem an easy business to follow up a group of offenders who have undergone the various cognitive skills training courses and after a period of time find out how many have been reconvicted. The problem is, what does such figures prove?

What is really wanted is how those figures compare with the numbers who would have been reconvicted had they not been involved in for example the SOTP. There can be no direct answer to that so one can only compare the outcome of the 'treatment' group as measured by the reconviction rates of a comparison or control group.

There is one factor which is really impossible to account for and that is that offenders who generally choose to engage in courses do so because they are more predisposed not to offend and thus it is likely that out of this will be some success stories. For the rest there exists elements of coercion that is often resisted, excuses will be made by the prisoner and decisions that target prisoners for courses can be often be subjected to legal challenge most which of course fail.

Statistics can also be interpreted to mean what the researcher wants them to mean, for example a claim that the effectiveness of courses reduces re-offending by 50% over 2 years can also mean that the figure is reduced to a mere 5% over 4 years. Short-term gains often means long-term losses.

For those offenders who meet the criteria of personality disorder there exists evidence that suggests that some interventions can have unintended consequences, for example the increase of violence due to treatment raising self-esteem and thus fuelling aggression. In addition, those with personality disorder it is suggested are likely to be 'false compilers' learning to fake empathy and 'jumping through the hoops'. (Harris et al 1994).

Would it also be fair to argue that if everything else remains unchanged for example the offender's socio- economic circumstances and his or her upbringing, poverty, unemployment, discrimination etc,  the likelihood of an offender going on to re-offend will remain unchanged no matter how many 'thinking skills' course certificates or educational qualifications he or she would have achieved?

What we have in cognitive skills courses are heavily value laden sessions where the values and ideas of the tutors usually white middle class are regarded as being positive and meaningful whilst those of the participants are to be challenged regardless of their validity and for sure, a good man in the eyes of God would possess very different qualities from a good man in the eyes of Hitler. Moreover, one person's sense is often another person's nonsense, which is no more than degrees of common sense.

There does seem to be a blind devotion by the Ministry of Justice and the Prison Service to cognitive skills training which includes the Sex Offender Treatment Programme (SOTP), Enhanced Thinking Skills (ETS), Reasoning and Rehabilitation (R&R) Controlling Anger and Learning to Manage It (CALM) and the Cognitive Self Change Programme (CSCP) courses but these arguable solutions to offending behaviour are the result of very simplistic explanations as to why people offend when there are so many variables, features and conditions unique to each individual.

The dynamics of offending may be just more than the way one thinks and certainly the 'one size cap fits all' approach where courses are designed to treat groups alike irrespective of ethnic, cultural, gender, socio-economic or personality differences may well leave many questions unanswered and in some instances may render offending behaviour courses as being culturally unfair.

It does seem that in the current approach, the Ministry of Justice and the Prison Service are 'putting all their eggs in one basket' which may yet prove to be disastrously ineffective and far more costly than envisaged by the critics of psychology based offending behaviour courses.