Because well-designed and well-implemented treatment can reduce recidivism among sex offenders – by as much as 20-40% – it is an important component of a broader sex offender management system.  Generally speaking, it is designed to assist the offenders with addressing the dynamic risk factors (i.e., criminogenic needs) that contribute to their offending and to develop or enhance skills and supports that will help them to lead stable, prosocial lives.  Treatment typically focuses on:

As is true with other correctional interventions, treatment effectiveness with sex offenders is maximized by adhering to the core evidence-based principles.  This means that:

It also requires that the programs are delivered by well-trained and skilled professionals who are equipped with the proper training, supervision, resources, and other supports that are required to deliver effective risk-reducing programs and services for sex offenders.

Recognizing the importance of specialized treatment in reducing recidivism, paroling authorities often require sex offenders to participate in or complete prison-based sex offender treatment (where such programs exist) before they will be considered for release.  When prison-based treatment capacity is limited and offenders are unable to access programming in a timely manner, meeting this expectation can be a challenge for some systems.  Perhaps most importantly, while intuitively reasonable, a "treatment for all" mandate does not align with evidence-based principles.  Research shows that implementing blanket treatment requirements – those that do not take in to account different levels of risk and need – will not result in the desired effect of reducing risk.  Rather, it can undermine treatment effectiveness and, in some circumstances (particularly with low risk offenders) it can have the paradoxical effect of increasing risk for recidivism.

It is important for paroling authorities to remember that not all sex offenders require or benefit from intensive prison-based sex offender treatment.  Requiring prison-based treatment as a rule for all sex offenders prior to parole consideration can have unintentional negative consequences, in that:

An evidence-based approach to treatment is one in which the dosage of treatment is matched to the level of risk and needs, with incrementally greater dosages provided for offenders with higher risk levels and more dynamic risk factors or criminogenic needs.   Paroling authorities can utilize an evidence-based strategy within the context of their desires (and the expectations of external stakeholders) to ensure that sex offenders to receive some type of interventions before being considered for release.  This can be accomplished by imposing differential treatment dosage expectations, whereby moderate to high risk and higher need sex offenders are required to participate in more intensive prison-based sex offender programming prior to release consideration, and low risk-need sex offenders are required to participate in a low dosage service, such as a brief psychoeducational intervention.  Once released, moderate or high risk sex offenders may still require community-based treatment or aftercare services to address ongoing needs or maintain treatment gains. This provides a forum to practice the skills learned in prison-based treatment and perhaps learn new skills to address issues and challenges that often arise once they have returned to the community (e.g., managing deviant sexual urges, accessing affordable and suitable housing, coping with conflicts in relationships, avoiding negative peer association difficulties, finding suitable employment handling negative public sentiment).  Therefore, parole boards can further support sex offenders' risk-reduction and stability by including community-based or aftercare treatment as a release condition.

Low risk, low need offenders, who benefit sufficiently from minimal (or no) prison-based treatment intervention are more likely to be relatively stable, compliant, and offense-free in the community without further services.  Because  circumstances can change after returning to the community, and dynamic risk factors may arise that were not present prior to release, parole members may elect to require community-based sex offender treatment as a condition of post-release supervision, based on assessment-driven determinations made by qualified professionals in the community.  As is the case for prison-based treatment, community-based sex offender treatment is most apt to be effective when matched to the level of risk and need of the offender.

Providing Services to Low Risk and Low Need Sex Offenders

Some paroling authorities and other stakeholder may be strongly opposed to eliminating prison-based treatment requirements for low risk, low need sex offenders.  This concern is not uncommon.  It is often driven in part by:

  • Feelings of personal responsibility
  • Political pressures and scrutiny
  • Negative public sentiment
  • Victims' interests and concerns
  • Fears about impact on victims, public confidence, and other fallout if an offender reoffends shortly after release

In response, some programs have developed a "low risk track."  In this track, a minimal level of service is provided through a brief, low intensity, low dosage psychoeducational program.  For example, it could be a 6 week class that meets 1-2 hours per week to review key criminogenic needs and methods to address them, practice cognitive and other skills, develop realistic release plans, and identify backup sources of support.  This may offset the hesitations parole board members have regarding the "no programming for low risk sex offenders" concept.  As an aside, parole eligible sex offenders across all risk level are released routinely from prisons that do not have any prison-based services for sex offenders; those jurisdictions respond by ensuring a range of community-based services for the returning offenders.

Implications for Paroling Authorities
Parole boards can support effective treatment for sex offenders in multiple ways, including:

Where prison-based treatment does not exist, partnering with correctional, treatment, and other agencies to educate legislators about the critical need for such services, and seeking legislative support and accompanying resources to develop and implement such programs.

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