No Evidence “Relapse Prevention” Works For Sex Offenders


“Relapse prevention” treatment plans for sex offenders have been common for the past 20 years but there is no convincing evidence that the approach works, or that others do either, says the New York Times. In the last of a 3-part series, the newspaper says that similar to aspects of Alcoholics Anonymous, relapse prevention has sex offenders own up to wrongdoing and resign themselves to a lifelong day-to-day struggle with temptation. One of the few authoritative studies, 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.

Clinicians who work with sex offenders cling to relapse prevention, and its durability speaks volumes about the politically fraught science of treating sex offenders. Not only is relapse prevention of questionable value, but so are the tests to gauge whether sex offenders in treatment still get inappropriately aroused, the drugs used for so-called chemical castration, and the methods of predicting risk of reoffending. Treatment methods have become topical as thousands of sex offenders are confined or restricted beyond their prison terms under civil commitment laws in 19 states. The laws have been found constitutional in part because they aim to provide treatment. On average, the civil commitment programs cost four times more than keeping sex offenders in prison. Experts say too little research has been conducted into how to treat sex offenders, putting psychotherapists and others working in civil commitment centers at a disadvantage.


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