Canada's sex offender legislation: 'tough on crime', short on smarts!

Treatment of Sex Offenders


Unlike those few individuals who are declared Dangerous Offenders or and Long Term Offenders, most former sex offenders are not considered to be high-risk and so 99% of convicted sexual offenders will at some point reside in the community, of which most will be on probation or parole [1]. Most of these individuals are amenable to treatment because they are sincerely disturbed by their behavior and desire to improve their functioning in law-abiding activities and age-appropriate relationships. Whether they are motivated to become sexually healthy adults, or simply want to avoid being re- arrested or incarcerated, many sex offenders articulate a wish to change the self-destructive patterns that led them to hurt others and suffer personal consequences. (Garrett, Oliver, Wilcox, and Middleton 2003).

Ultimately, through treatment, many offenders find that their lives begin to improve and that the maladaptive behaviors that led to their offenses have lessened considerably. They often report feeling more in control of their lives. Through treatment, they learn to substitute inner controls for external ones, and sex offender clients who were recently surveyed reported that they found this process to be empowering and rewarding (Garrett, Oliver, Wilcox, and Middleton 2003).

The effect of treatment upon individuals can be considerable. Recently, a mounting body of evidence in the general correctional field has demonstrated that purely custodial or punishment-driven approaches are not effective in ensuring that offenders will return to communities as law- abiding and productive citizens – but that well-designed treatment, education, and other programs and services can have the desired effect of promoting positive outcomes for offenders and reducing recidivism (see, e.g., Andrews & Bonta, 2003; Aos, Phipps, Barnoski, & Lieb, 2006; Cullen & Gendreau, 2000; Gaes, Flanagan, Motiuk, & Stewart, 1999). As a result, experts have argued for a reaffirmation of rehabilitative ideals within corrections and supervision agencies (see, e.g., Petersilia, 2003; Travis, 2005). By taking full advantage of the evidence-based opportunities that exist within prisons specifically, reentry efforts are more likely to be successful. It is suggested that this, too, can apply to the way in which sex offenders are managed (Bumby et al., in press).

 The Alaska Department of Corrections, in conjunction with the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center, recently completed a study of sex offenders in the treatment program at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center during the period of January 1987 to August 1995. There were several significant findings from the study:

  • A treatment effect was clearly demonstrated. Treated sex offenders lasted longer in the community before they re-offended than offenders in any of the comparison groups. Even under varied definitions of re-offense, the treatment group lasted longer without re-offense regardless of the definition applied.


  • Treatment at any level improved survival in the community without re-offense. Those who were in treatment longer tended to last longer in the community without a re-offense. Those who completed all stages of treatment through the advanced stage had a zero re-offense rate for sexual re-offenses. This included Sexual Assault offenders (rapists), who generally tend to re-offend more quickly and at a higher frequency. (See Figure 2.)

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When those who had successfully completed treatment goals were compared with those who had not, there was a significant difference with treated groups demonstrating lower recidivism rates (Marques et al., 2005). Other studies have concluded that sex offenders who did not participate in psychological treatment had a higher recidivism rate (17%) than those who received cognitive behavioral therapy (10%) (Hanson, Gordon, Harris, Marques, Murphy, Quinsey, & Seto, 2002). Treatment for first time offenders seems even more promising; 9% of first time offenders in treatment recidivated, compared to 27% of those who went untreated (Nicholaichuk, Gordon, Gu, & Wong, 2000).

Once again we find that the research conducted by Public Safety Canada has echoed the above results:

  • Not all sex offenders should be treated the same. The type of crime and personal factors should determine the treatment.
  • Research shows that treatment of sex offenders does make a difference. Sex offenders who receive treatment are less likely to re-offend. Offenders who don't receive treatment are likely to re-offend at a rate of 17 per cent compared to 10 per cent for offenders who have received treatment.
  • Most sexual offenders do not re-offend sexually over time.
  • Different types of sex crimes are linked to different risk levels for re-offending. That is why it is particularly important to assess sex offenders. Treatment programs for sex offenders must match the offenders' risk levels and their learning styles. Sex offender programs stress the need for offenders to take responsibility for their actions and recognize the behaviors that led to the offence. Offenders must learn to identify high risk situations that could lead to re-offending and develop strategies to cope with them.
  • Sex offenders succeed better after their prison term if they are supervised in the community.
  • In the community, sex offenders can take part in follow-up maintenance programs that boost treatment and helps staff monitor risk levels and help offenders develop self-management skills.

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COST of incarceration vs. cost of treatment:

Many readers may have reached this point and asked “So, what?” After all, the reader might protest, I am not a criminal and I am not involved in politics. Exactly. But every taxpayer incurs a huge financial burden as a result of legislative inefficiency and political maneuverings. While short-term benefits of some legislation (such as the recent rash of sex offender laws) may seem worthwhile on their face, the long-term implications are costly and inefficient. For instance, the money spent on treatment accounts for a remarkably small proportion of the cost of incarcerating a sex offender. Incarceration costs roughly $50,000 a year and sex offenders average about four years in federal custody. Court costs, legal costs, victim compensation and hospitalization add a minimum of $25,000. The emotional aftermath of sexual assault is difficult to estimate, but should also be considered. In contrast, the direct cost of treating a sex offender is about $7,400 per year. Decreasing recidivism by as little as 40 sex offenders annually would virtually pay for continuing programs and would also prevent considerable victim suffering. Societal responsibility. The Preliminary Results from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy's Economic Analysis of Sex Offender Programs estimated that each taxpayer dollar spent on a cognitive-behavioral program for adult offenders’ returns between $1.19 and $5.27 in victim and taxpayers benefits. Because treated offenders reoffend at lower rates than untreated offenders, providing therapeutic intervention saves money on investigation, prosecution, incarceration, and victim services.

The prevention of victimization should be our ultimate goal. This means that society as a whole must take some responsibility for reducing sex offences - parents, government agencies, neighbours, children and community members.