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Helping to rehabilitate sex offenders is controversial – but it can prevent more abuse

When it was announced that a centre had opened in Nottingham in February to support the reintegration of people convicted of sexual offences into the community, it understandably caused controversy.

We are both trustees and part of a group who co-founded the charity behind the Corbett Centre for Prisoner Reintegration, which will offer support and mentoring and help people acquire new skills. The aim is to keep communities safer and reduce reoffending through reintegration – and research shows this approach can be an effective way of achieving this.

But the announcement was met with concern and anger from the public and some victims of abuse.

It’s vital that survivors and victims are given the support, care and treatment they need to come to terms with what has happened to them, and to find some healing. Yet, preventing further victims being created and more lives being ruined is a huge social challenge.

The scale of the problem

Approximately 15% of the prison population, or 12,750 people, in England and Wales have sexual convictions. A further 50,000 are on the Sex Offenders’ Register – people who offended after the register was introduced in 1997 and currently live in the community. There are thousands more who committed sexual offences before 1997 and approximately 55,000 people thought to be under investigation for committing a sexual offence. Approximately one in ten of those released back into the community will go on to commit another sexual offence.

Society needs to engage seriously with how to reintegrate those who have offended and to stop future offending. The way to do this is by considering the evidence and understanding what does and doesn’t work. But, there is one huge obstacle standing in the way – public opinion and perceptions around this sensitive, emotive and often traumatic topic. If there was a more general sense of public support for rehabilitation this could assist with the reintegration process, which in turn can help keep communities safer.

What doesn’t work

There are numerous examples of unproven methods used in the rehabilitation of those with sexual convictions. Such practices tend to be based on “intuitive beliefs” such as it “feels right”, but there is little evidence they reduce reoffending.

Some of the traditional approaches to working with people with sexual convictions have an unproven evidence base. These include programmes that focus on encouraging victim empathy and tackling denial, rather than on skills to lead a good and better life. While getting a person to admit to their offending feels right, for example, it’s not related to reducing reoffending.

Notification schemes that enable members of the public to request information about people who are in contact with their child, also “feel” like a good idea. They may bring comfort to people, but there is limited evidence for their effectiveness and some to suggest they are ineffective.

Research in the US shows that for most offenders, prison doesn’t reduce reoffending and harsh environments can also have a negative impact upon both prisoners and staff.

For those with sexual convictions, prison can be a brutal experience dominated by a struggle for survival. While the public are naturally concerned that once somebody is a sex offender they will always be a sex offender, this is not always the case.

While it may seem publicly appealing to put convicted sex offenders in prison for long periods and to make that experience hostile, this doesn’t work to reduce risk of reoffending and may instead increase their risk by increasing social isolation. In our own research, we found that prisons that only house those with sexual convictions allowed people the “headspace” to change. Research has also shown that prisons with a more therapeutic climate are more likely to help those with sexual convictions address their offending behaviour and make personal changes – which could reduce reoffending.

The brutal experience of prison may not be ideal for helping to rehabilitate sex offenders. Dan Kitwood/PA Wire

What does work

Some of the key factors that lead people to reoffend are social and emotional isolation, emotional immaturity, and general problems relating to others. Having a job, or something meaningful to do in your life, can help to protect people against a downward spiral that leads to sexual reoffending.

Research shows that interventions with people with sexual convictions appear to be more effective in the community than in prison, which is why there is a real need for better community reintegration and rehabilitation.

This is why initiatives such as Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) have been shown to work. In these interventions, between three and five trained volunteers provide social, emotional and practical support for high-risk sexual offenders. In one evaluation in Minnesota, those taking part in a CoSA programme had their risk of rearrest for a sexual offence reduced by 88%.

Sexual abuse can destroy lives and devastate families. Victims of sexual crimes should be given access to the help and support they need for their recovery as a priority. But funding is also needed for programmes and interventions that can prevent future victims. “Helping” sex offenders may feel like a bitter pill to swallow, but if the prescription is based on robust evidence, the end result will be fewer victims of sexual crime. This is something that benefits everyone.

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