Sex offender treatment programmes are dangerous

No form of behavioural therapy can truly rehabilitate men with a long history of violence, aggression and misogyny.

John Worboys mugshot
In 2018, notorious serial rapist, John Worboys, was recommended for release by the parole board on the grounds he had “addressed" his offending behaviour by completing an SOTP [Metropolitan Police/PA].

In March 2020, Ian Maiden, a British man in his late 40s, was given a suspended sentence of just four months for sexual offences against a child.

Maiden had masturbated in front of his victim – a 12-year-old girl – as well as sending her numerous sexually explicit messages and photos of his genitals. Under British law, the judge could have given him up to 10 years in prison for these offences, but Maiden got lucky: the judge had faith in so-called “sex offender treatment programmes” (SOTPs).

“You are not considered a danger to the public,” the judge told Maiden. “It seems to me [it would be] better for the public that you received the benefit of a sex offender treatment programme.”

Noting that he believes Maiden’s crimes warrant only a short custodial sentence and that SOTPs can be effective only if attended for a longer period, the judge gave him a short, suspended sentence and ordered him to attend a year-long course on the outside.

As such, Maiden became one of the thousands of convicted sex offenders in Britain who managed to avoid serving time for their crimes against women and children by agreeing to participate in a “treatment” programme.

SOTPs like the one prescribed to Maiden aim to rehabilitate sexual offenders and reduce their risk of reoffending through cognitive behavioural group therapy and other supporting psychological interventions. In these programmes, instructors encourage offenders to admit that their behaviour was wrong, caused harm and potential damage to their victims, and had a wider negative effect on society.

Britain has been attempting to rehabilitate sex offenders using SOTPs, in and outside prison, for decades.

The most prominent of such efforts was the prison-based Core Sex Offender Treatment Programme (Core SOTP), which ran in England and Wales between 1991 and 2017. It attempted to “treat” tens of thousands of sexual offenders through “cognitive-behavioural psychological group work”.

In 2012, researchers commissioned by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to evaluate the effectiveness of the Core SOTP found that offenders who participated in the course were considerably more likely to be convicted of further sex crimes than those who did not. Lead analyst Kathryn Hopkins presented her report to the MoJ in 2012, but despite her damning findings, the programme ran on for five more years.

MoJ was so keen to prove Hopkins’ findings wrong that it told her that her methodology must have been “flawed” and commissioned further research. When a new group of researchers reached identical conclusions in 2017, the programme was finally – and quietly – scrapped. Hopkins estimates that if the programme had been suspended in 2012, when she first shared her findings with the authorities, at least 100 people would not have become victims of sexual abuse.

Hopkins’ study was the most comprehensive and robust evaluation of sex offender programmes in the world and remains so today. One of her most important findings was that men speaking in group sessions about the details of their sexual offences sexually excited other participants, increasing their risk of reoffending after release.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with sexual offenders – and especially those who target children. We know too well that sexual offenders like to gather in groups – online and in person – to share fantasies and child abuse images, so group sessions where offenders describe their offences in graphic detail were always going to do more harm than good.

In March 2017, the MoJ quietly introduced two new sex offender treatment programmes: Kaizen (for high-risk, high-need, high-priority offenders) and Horizon (for medium-risk offenders) to replace Core SOTP.  Unlike their predecessor, these courses do not involve group sessions where men share details of their sexual offences. Nevertheless, it is still highly suspect whether these courses will successfully rehabilitate offenders and provide any benefits to society.

Indeed, another damning piece of research, released earlier this year, found that an SOTP based on one-to-one therapy sessions, named the Healthy Sex Programme (HSP), made no difference to reoffending rates at all. While this is undoubtedly a better result than that of previous SOTPs which served to increase reoffending, it is hardly a success story – especially given all forms of SOTPs cost taxpayers millions of pounds and contribute to the false belief that sex offenders are not criminals but mental health patients not fully responsible for their actions.

Furthermore, we have evidence that offenders learned to use the SOTP sessions to game the system. The courses seem to teach offenders what language to use in order to appear as if they are no longer likely to offend and thereby secure themselves an early release from prison. In fact, we have seen many parole boards mark sex offenders as lower risk solely because they completed such a programme.

This is what happened in the case of the UK’s most notorious serial rapist, John Worboys, who was recommended for release by the parole board on the grounds he had “addressed” his offending behaviour by completing an SOTP.

In 2009, London black cab driver Worboys was sentenced to life in prison for attacks on 12 women. It was later revealed that grave failings in the police investigation significantly delayed his capture and allowed him to harm more women. More than 105 women eventually came forward to report their suspicion that Worboys drugged and raped them while he was on the loose. It is believed he may have drugged, raped and sexually assaulted more than 200 women.

In 2018, the parole board decided that Worboys was safe to be released. The decision was based on favourable reports by three forensic psychologists and ignored opposition from Worboys’ offender manager and other prison staff.

“You have learned to be open and honest with professionals and you are assessed as being compliant” the parole board said in its decision. “[…] you say that SOTP has taught you to identify risk factors and put in place strategies to self-manage risks”.

The parole board eventually overturned its decision in the face of significant public outcry and Worboys remains in prison. But the near release of a serial rapist like him on the grounds that he had been rehabilitated demonstrates how dangerous SOTPs can be when they are used by offenders to manipulate the system.

We know that men who commit sex crimes have a significant risk of reoffending. And it is no wonder. In the UK, like most countries around the world, the criminal justice system is often ineffective in bringing such perpetrators to justice. There is little deterrence and very few consequences for men who want to abuse and harm women and children for their own sexual gratification.

In the UK, only 6 to 7 percent of reported sexual offenders ever end up in court. Many of these either get to reduce the time they spend in prison by signing up to an SOTP, or avoid going to prison altogether, like Ian Maiden, by participating in an SOTP in the community.

This is unacceptable. Something needs to be done to deter men from committing sex offences and stop those readily convicted from reoffending.

I reckon a guaranteed prison sentence of many years (coupled with the knowledge that in most prisons other inmates take pride in inflicting violence on the worst sexual offenders) would be enough to deter most would-be offenders. I would empty our prisons of all those that do not pose a threat to others, but incarceration is the only option for sex offenders who seek out the most vulnerable victims.

The idea that any behavioural therapy, in whatever form, either in or outside of prisons, will prevent future offending and turn men with a history of violence, aggression and misogyny into model citizens is not just naive, it is dangerous.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.