child abuse
Sex Offender Treatment Programmes have been offered in UK prisons since 1991 Getty Images

A range of talking therapies have been on offer for sex offenders in UK prisons and psychiatric hospitals since 1991. Under the Sex Offender Treatment Programmes (SOTPs), criminals take part in group discussions which attempt to uncover the triggers for sexual offending and encourage them to consider the impact on their victims.

But are we really able to judge whether a convicted sex offender will reoffend after they have served their time?

David Ho, a clinical research lead at the SEPT Secure Mental Health Services, South Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust, has claimed that the treatment programme has not been shown to work effectively.

"No evidence from academic or policy research has shown that the treatment programme significantly reduces sexual reoffending," Ho writes in the British Medical Journal. "Victims and the public deserve to know this."

Chris Wilson, acting CEO of Circles UK, an organisation in which groups of community volunteers form a social network around a sexual offender to support their rehabilitation and prevent reoffending, says that there is a difference between a lack of evidence and ineffective treatment.

"The problem has always been that in terms of evidencing whether treatment works, 'base rates of re-conviction are much lower than other types of offending behaviour," he says. "Because the rates are so low, it is very difficult to evidence the impact of treatment."

Experts argue that it is difficult to be certain sex offenders have reformed, due to the nature of the crime. The most reliable guide is whether their behaviour has been monitored positively over a long period of time – which can be from five to 15 years or more.

Identifying factors of abuse

On the surface, official statistics from the Ministry of Justice suggest the reoffending rate for sex offenders is low at 26.8%, compared with non-serious violent crime at 33.5% and robbery at 38.1%.

Yet a 2003 Home Office study which examined the success of SOTPs found that the recidivism rate – a more comprehensive measure of behaviours – was more than five times that of the reconviction rate.

Nonetheless, the Home Office study identified a key issue among reoffenders: loneliness and isolation. These are factors addressed in SOTPS and so-called circle programmes, such as the scheme run by Circle UK.

"The study psychometrically tested a large sample population of criminals who had been through a treatment programme but had reoffended, and they found they had high levels of emotional loneliness and isolation in common," Wilson says. "I genuinely believe that decreasing these factors is really important in terms of reoffending."

"We need to work with people who sexually offend, giving them insight to identify what their high risk mood states are, what their risk situations are and coping strategies, to give them self-awareness," he adds. "Without actually engaging and working with the offender is a bit crazy really."

Donald Findlater, of the child protection charity Lucy Faithfull Foundation, says that child sexual abuse – as with sex crimes against adults – is preventable, not inevitable.

"Sex Offender Treatment Programmes are not a panacea, but make a material difference to many," he says. "The information the programme collects from offender, for example, how they offended, when they are a risk, to whom they are a risk, the warning signs of risk – these all help police and probation officers better manage them in the community."

The majority of sex offenders are never convicted of a crime again, Findlater adds. "This is due to a lot of factors, including their crimes coming to attention, their behaviour being known to loved ones, support circles and belonging."

Recidivism and psychopaths

Sex offenders are, of course, a heterogeneous group who are often bundled together as one population. But there are various different types of offenders and different crimes. So what about offenders with psychopathic traits? A recent study by the University of Montreal found that brain scans of psychopaths – who make up around one in five violent offenders – have abnormalities in areas of the brain related to empathy and learning from punishment, so are unable to change their behaviour.

With higher rates of recidivism and an inability to benefit from rehabilitation schemes, are SOTPs futile for psychopaths?

Criminologist prof David Wilson of Birmingham City University, who previously worked on the SOTP at Grendon prison, said that it is possible for a psychopath to change, but this takes a great deal of time.

"Usually, the individual would have to be in therapy for years, and often the downside of the sex offender treatment programme is that it is a daily or weekly session about a particular issue, as opposed to really challenging engrained beliefs," he says.

"The only place where one sees a change in people who have been assessed as being psychopathic, is in a prison that operates as a psycho-dynamic therapeutic community."

Psychological tests, community programmes, lie detectors and medication can also offer an indication as to whether a sex offender is a risk to the public.

"If we really want to make the world a safer place, far from understandably wanting to shun these people, you might want to get closer to them," Wilson adds.