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Strategies to reduce sex offender recidivism
Spending time and money on specialized treatment programs for sex offenders serves to lower their risk of recidivism and work to protect the community
By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety
Male sex offenders are one of the most complicated inmate populations within the prison system and require significant resources – including specialized and expensive treatment programs –dedicated to their rehabilitation.
“The reality is that the overwhelming majority of these offenders will one day be released,” said Kelli Callahan, who worked in a forensic mental health and treatment unit within a correctional facility in the state of Washington. Callahan transitioned into full-time academia and is a faculty member at American Military University, teaching criminal justice courses. She spoke to In Public Safety about rehabilitation strategies and considerations for sex offenders.
Spending time and money on specialized treatment programs for sex offenders serves a dual purpose. “We’re treating them to lower their risk of recidivism, so we’re simultaneously working to protect the community, as well as giving these individuals an opportunity for parole,” she said.
Treatment Programs for Sex Offenders
Treatment programs for sex offenders focus largely on cognitive behavioral therapy and risk/needs assessments. In Washington, Callahan collaborated with mental health professionals to create treatment programs for felons in hopes of eliminating their need to act out on their thoughts.
“It’s daunting. I worked with men whose deviant sexual thoughts have been expressed as criminal sexual behaviors. Their thoughts are commonly fantasy-based and they attempt to reenact these fantasies. These behaviors, in turn, reinforce the deviant sexual thoughts so we attempt to disrupt this maladaptive cycle,” she said.
The goal is to help sex offenders see the world in a new way. “We worked every day to tear down their existing thought structure and rebuild it with new thoughts, new ways of viewing things, and new ways of expressing healthy, prosocial behaviors,” she said.
The program she used was highly intensive and required offenders to complete numerous assignments as part of their treatment.
One such assignment, the Behavioral Chain Analysis (BCA), involved a detailed autopsy of a specific offending behavior where the offender must detail every thought and behavior associated with an incident. This assignment was designed to focus on the internal and external triggers and cues that accompany the event. Each thought and behavior was examined with the goal of the offender realizing the interconnectedness of all his thoughts and ensuing actions – and ideally, rewiring that cognitive loop.
This activity provided an offender with much-needed insight into the factors that increased his risk for offending. By better understanding risks, offenders are ideally better able to engage intervention strategies in the future.
While such assignments and treatment methods can be effective, Callahan noted that not all offenders are amenable to sex offender treatment. Those who present psychopathy or are not willing to admit to criminal behavior cannot be treated. For the most part, however, offenders know they have a problem and express a desire for treatment.
Still, working to rehabilitate sex offenders is highly challenging and progress is often slow. Success is measured by the efficacy of the offender to better regulate their emotions and behaviors.
While seeing such improvements is encouraging, working with male sex offenders is incredibly stressful, she admits. “Many people don’t like working with this population. There was a very high turnover rate in our unit and burnout was rampant,” she said. “It was really difficult to go in and subject yourself to the psychology of these men and it was even harder to put your personal biases aside and work toward treating them.”
What kept Callahan going was the ultimate contribution she was making to public safety. “Knowing that I’ve played a role in ideally reducing recidivistic behaviors in all forms with these men and ideally reducing the potential for future victimization made it easier to work in this environment on a daily basis,” she said.
About the Author: Leischen (Stelter) Kranick is the editor of In Public Safety, an American Military University sponsored website. She has spent six years writing articles on issues and trends relevant to professionals in law enforcement, fire services, emergency management and national security. To contact her, email IPSauthors@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.