Supporting sex offenders’ reintegration into society is key to preventing re-offending
Sex offenders need far greater support to reintegrate into communities following release from their sentences and treatment, a criminal justice expert has warned.
Linsey Marsh, risk assessment consultant who specialises in working with sex offenders, says communities can play a far greater role in helping offenders reintegrate into society which can have a positive impact on re-offending rates.
Circles UK is one such organisation. They help put into place a community group of volunteers, to work with offenders, helping them to overcome particular obstacles they face on release from serving custodial sentences such as finding housing and employment, and establishing a social life with new hobbies and interests, whilst also monitoring and managing risk factors, explains Marsh.
“Using local communities to support reintegration has previously taken place on a wider and more focussed way in other countries, helping people to successfully reintegrate into society. It can have a positive impact on reducing re-offending rather than perpetuating stigmatisation and emphasising factors that have previously triggered offending,” she says.
Marsh cites American research where the public are asked about how likely they think it is that a sex offender would re-offend and the public cite re-offending rates of 80-90%. However, in relation to sexual crimes, the recidivism rates are around:
This is in comparison to figures of 30% and higher for other crimes such as robbery which is why Marsh believes that a community approach to supporting ex-offenders is vital to reducing recidivism rates even further.
In addition, much more work needs to be done around challenging the many common myths and misconceptions around sex offenders. “The only way they will get a fair chance is if they are given a fair chance,” she adds.
Marsh studied psychology initially earning herself an upper second degree and went on to receive a first class honours degree in community and criminal justice studies. She found the whole area of human behaviour fascinating and was keen to observe and understand the drive and motivation of others, particularly around offending behaviour.
Her desire to specialise in working with sex offenders came later, but Marsh was keen to work with offenders and was interested in behaviour that “went against the societal norm” and wanted to try and understand that. However, once she began working with offenders, she found that changes to the way services were run meant there was limited time to carry out any meaningful work with people who had carried out offences. “I wanted to carry out work that was therapeutic, in-depth and involved. I wanted to work with a client group where there would be challenges and rewards, where I could facilitate a process of change and growth in individuals, and protect others from harm,” she explains.
This led Marsh to working with men who had carried out sexual crimes which, she explains, is an area of criminal justice work which divides people and which some professionals will not want to work with. “The work can have a strong emotional impact and you need good safeguarding measures in place to take care of your own emotional wellbeing,” says Marsh.
“This is where the assumptions and misconceptions come into force. Sexual crimes are viewed as the most abhorrent thing that could happen yet often some of the factors that are underlying in these cases are the same factors that are underlying in other crimes but manifest in these cases as sexually-related or motivated crimes.”
“There is no such thing as a stereotypical sex offender: These people are everyday members of society – they could be your next door neighbour, your friend, your work colleague and their problems manifest as sexually-related crimes,” she adds.
The sexually-related crimes against children or adults are crimes that are covered by the Sexual Offences Act 2003. This includes:
It also includes other non-contact related crimes such as looking at child abusive images.
Some of the men who are contact offenders admit to being engaged with non-contact offences before they have committed a contact crime. Other men are involved in viewing images and non-contact crimes only and would never offend in any other way. Non-contact offences are harder to detect and the behaviour can be quite compulsive.
Marsh’s consultancy work includes working directly with perpetrators or alleged perpetrators of sexual crimes to assess the risk of re-offending which involves interviewing them to ascertain the risk factors that led to offending behaviour, to discover where those factors originated and developed into problems and unhealthy behaviour and also gauge how much insight they have and what strategies have they developed for managing their feelings. The risk assessments are carried out to ascertain whether someone is in the present day at risk of re-offending. Following the risk assessment, Marsh makes recommendations as to how risk factors might be addressed or managed.
In treating sex offenders, Marsh facilitates the treatment process which is based on cognitive behavioural therapy but also draws on psychodynamic and attachment theory. The techniques are structured and problem focused to help the perpetrator to understand their thoughts, feelings and behaviours and develop non abusive, non-offending strategies. The programme focuses on developing strengths and resources while addressing deficits and putting coping strategies in place.
“In treatment you work with the whole person, not just the offending element, as that focuses on negatives. If someone is able to construct a non-offending identity and develop a better life for themselves, they are less likely to go on to reoffend. How much a person believes in change is key to desistance,” adds Marsh.
Marsh says her main aim in treatment is to approach the person “like a human being” and be interested in what they have to say. Offenders can feel like they are just an object in the criminal justice process, explains Marsh, and that they do not have a voice. She says she is direct, tries to normalise discussion about the behaviour, does not judge and tries to be motivational to help people to be open. She aims to be non-confrontational so they do not clam up, while also probing areas of concern.
“I try and explain that the more open they are, the more likely we are to get it right in terms of offering help and support. If they are not open, they can’t make the changes. I try and reiterate that we don’t want to be here again in five years’ time so it is better to be open now,” says Marsh.
Treatment is carried out in group work and in one-to-one sessions. In custody, the groups would be set up within the prison whereas in the community, either criminal justice, mental health or other agencies (e.g. NSPCC) might facilitate treatment groups.
“In group therapy, it is often best to have a mix of offence types within the group. If the group is made up of people who have all committed a similar offence and therefore have similar attitudes, it can be more difficult to break down the attitudes. A mix of offence types can be helpful as you get a greater sense of peer challenge, as well as support,” says Marsh, explaining that people within the group will accept more from peers than they would from professionals.
“When a peer explains their own experiences of leading a successful non-offending life, it takes away the sense of hopelessness that they will ‘always be an offender’ and always carry that label,” she adds.
Marsh clarifies that the benefits of group work outweighs the risk elements of offenders spending time with people who have carried out a similar offence to themselves, potentially worse, and thus being drawn into a worse kind of sexual offending and suggests that this idea of ‘contamination’ is another misconception.
There is, however, evidence that suggests that low-risk offenders should engage in less treatment than high-risk offenders as there is the risk that if you ‘over-treat’ someone, it can compound that offending identity.
Addressing the controversial question as to whether sex offenders can be treated, Marsh cites figures which show that sex offenders who undergo treatment are less likely to go on and re-offend. The recidivism rates are around 10% for sex offenders who have undergone treatment compared with 20% for those untreated.
Marsh also reports good levels of compliance with treatment. “Most people when they have committed a crime feel guilty and ashamed and do want to change. The crime has a huge impact on the victim and the victim’s family. But it also has a significant effect on the offender and the offender’s family. It is a ripple effect – the ramifications are huge,” she says.
As a result, high levels of denial can exist although Marsh says this is not necessarily a bad thing and the whole issue of denial is very complex. “There is a lot of misunderstanding around denial and what it means in terms of risk levels. Denial is not a fixed, ‘either or’ construct. Denial can range from total denial i.e. ‘I didn’t do that at all’, to partial denial i.e. ‘I did this, but not that’, to various statements of minimisation around factors such as planning, intent and harm caused e.g. ‘I did do it but it didn’t cause that much harm, it was only once, it wasn’t really my fault,’. The level of denial and/ or minimisation that an individual displays can vary from time to time and in its nature. It must be remembered that denial is a normal human behaviour and, with regards to sexual offending, factors such as guilt and shame, social/ religious/ cultural stigma, punishment, the loss of social support and intimate relationships and harm to self-image, might all play a role in an offender’s willingness to fully acknowledge their thinking and actions. It is, therefore, quite natural that a sexual offender (or anyone in life who does anything harmful or wrong) might display denial and struggle to accept and admit to their behaviour. Some offenders may publically deny their crimes but may take internal responsibility for the crime,” says Marsh.
“There is the thought that if someone denies the crime, there is a higher risk of re-offending, but that is not the case. Research shows that denial has a low predictive power and it can be a positive sign that someone is so ashamed of what they have done that they want to distance themselves from the offending behaviour,” she adds.
“As denial doesn’t necessarily predict the risk level, it is not helpful to use a ‘denier’ label as it can back someone into a corner with regards to how open that they then feel they can be. It is better at look at the level of responsibility that someone is willing to take, as a starting point for any treatment, and then they can make greater shifts. You can judge how likely they are to re-offend and manage the risk factors by looking at how good their risk management strategies are,” says Marsh.
Marsh explains that there is never just one factor that motivates someone to offend. Being a victim of sexual, physical or emotional abuse might increase the risk of someone sexually offending, but it can also be a risk of general offending behaviour.
Marsh is also experienced in undertaking ‘capacity to protect’ assessments with partners and family members of those who have sexually offended. The assessments are designed to assess the parent or carer’s ability to protect a child from risk. Marsh looks at whether parents or carers can recognise the signs and symptoms of abuse and assesses their ability to take appropriate safeguarding action. It can be a difficult time, Marsh says, if a parent or carer is providing support to an offender and protecting a child in their care. “They have to come to terms with the impact of the information on their own life and identity – it is really sensitive work,” she adds.
The non-abusing parent or carer rarely knows that abuse has taken place, explains Marsh. “They would know something was amiss but if someone is being abusive, they don’t want to get caught and manipulate the people around them to go undetected. The non-abusive partner may realise something in hindsight but abusers are very skilled in remaining undetected. Why would you suspect that your partner is abusing your children? If they were acting strange you would probably put it down to a bad day at work.”
Marsh says working with the non-abusing parent or carer is the most valuable piece of work she does and can make a huge difference to people’s lives.
“There is a lot of focus and resources channelled at the offender and there is the need to manage the risk of harm. However, there isn’t enough emphasis on people in protective roles. These people, who are effectively victims themselves, didn’t choose to be in that situation. There is no specific funding in public services for support and this is something I feel strongly about. The non-abusing parent or carer plays such a key role in preventing abuse and the value people take from this work is immense.”
“I help them to place the responsibility with the offender rather than themselves by understanding objectively that it is not their fault. It is important to enable them to continue their lives whilst understanding risk issues and taking appropriate safeguarding action to protect their children. These people are put in such a difficult situation and this is a priceless piece of work,” she concludes.
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