Can Sex Offender Treatment Affect Recidivism?


Patrick Velez spent eight years in sex offender treatment after he raped a fast-food worker after a kidnapping in Washington State in 1981. He left prison in 2000, but last month, he was charged with trying to strangle a woman after hiding in her car, says the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Despite inconsistent research findings, sex-offender treatment is not only a fixture in criminal justice, but also a burgeoning field, with the number of certified therapists more than doubling statewide in the last 10 years. While the overall climate for sex offenders has radically changed — with longer sentences and more restrictions — treatment has largely remained static, relying on the same cognitive-behavioral methods introduced in the 1980s. “It’s an ongoing question, there’s no two ways about it,” said Roxanne Lieb of the Washington State Institute of Public Policy, on the effectiveness of treatment. “Certainly, it’s not a cure-all,” she said.

Last year, Lieb released a study that found that Washington’s prison treatment program for male sex offenders — one of the nation’s largest — had virtually no effect on reducing recidivism rates. The study echoed a landmark 2005 study, in which researchers found that a California hospital program for confined sex offenders had no significant impact on curbing repeat crimes. Both studies have detractors who point to other studies showing that treatment works. “There’s pretty good evidence that if you pick out the right kind of people, who feel badly about what they’ve done, you can alter those patterns,” Lieb said. “But if you have someone who’s anti-social, who hates women or who is sexually attracted to little kids, no one knows anything about what to do about those three things.”


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