Focus Area: Sex Offender Treatment

Sex offenders returning to the community from incarceration are of utmost concern to practitioners, program administrators, policymakers, and the public due to the harms caused to victims and society when these individuals reoffend . Providing effective treatment and programming geared to reduce the risk of recidivism for people convicted of sexual offenses is not always straightforward or easy for reentry program administrators and treatment professionals. Practitioners need to take into consideration the type of offense committed, the individual’s sexual behavior , among many other factors. To help practitioners, program administrators, and policymakers identify research-supported programs and interventions, the Clearinghouse provides an overview and discussion on the key findings from a review of high quality evaluations on sex offender treatment programs.

Summary of Findings

Following a systematic review of research on reentry programs that enrolled sex offenders, a total of 44 studies were identified, but only seven evaluations of five programs met eligibility criteria for inclusion into the Clearinghouse. These five programs provided a variety of services, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, relapse prevention, and group therapy. Findings from these seven studies were mixed: two programs significantly improved recidivism outcomes for program participants, and the remaining three programs did not significantly impact recidivism outcomes for program participants. None of the programs were harmful, however. Highlights include:

  • The evaluation of the Minnesota Department of Corrections Sex Offender Treatment Program found strong evidence that the program reduced recidivism outcomes. Program participants were 12% less likely to be rearrested for any offense, 18% less likely to be rearrested for a violent offense, and 27% less likely to be rearrested for a sex offense.
  • Two evaluations of the Adult Diagnostic Treatment Center in New Jersey found mixed results. Both evaluations indicated that program participants were not any less likely to be rearrested for sexual offenses, but were less likely to commit non-sexual offenses.

Future Areas of Research

Although there is a large body of research examining the effectiveness of sex offender treatment programs for individuals returning from incarceration, many of these studies suffer from serious methodological problems. As stated earlier, 44 studies were identified for initial review since these evaluated the effects of sex offender treatment programs on post-release outcomes; out of these studies, only seven met the criteria for methodological rigor. Of the studies excluded, most failed to adequately control for pre-existing differences between the treatment and comparison groups, or employed study designs that introduced selection bias es. Additionally, some of the included studies matched treatment and control groups on a limited number of criteria or used comparison groups released several years before the treatment groups, which may have introduced historical effects. In fact, only one of the seven evaluations included in the Clearinghouse employed a random assignment study design, whereas others employed quasi-experimental techniques.

Given the small number of studies meeting criteria for rigor and given the prevalence of methodological problems in omitted studies, researchers in this area should seek to improve their study methodology by working with programs to utilize random assignment study design, or a strong quasi-experimental study design. Researchers should seek to minimize the differences across study groups through the use of contemporary comparison groups, rigorous matching procedures, and controls that account for relevant background variables.

In addition to strengthening study methodology, researchers can also help policymakers and practitioners by working with programs to better describe the program components and treatments, the characteristics of the treatment group, and how specific program components may have been a key factor in reducing recidivism on both sexual and non-sexual offenses. Policymakers, program administrators, and treatment professionals are seeking to understand what kinds of treatment are most appropriate for different types of crimes and sex-offenses, so more detailed discussion on these facets is crucial for understanding what kinds of programs reduce recidivism for people convicted of sex offenses. Finally, future research should also seek to evaluate the effects of these programs on other post-release outcomes in addition to recidivism, such as employment or substance use.

Summary of Evaluations and Outcomes

Rigor Evaluation Recidivism Employment Substance Abuse
Basic Rigor Barnoski 2006 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)
Basic Rigor Davidson 1984 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)
High Rigor Duwe & Goldman 2009 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)
High Rigor Marques et al. 1988 - 2005 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)
Basic Rigor Quinsey, Khanna, & Malcolm 1998 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)
Basic Rigor Zgoba & Simon 2005 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)
Basic Rigor Zgoba 2004 (not evaluated) (not evaluated)