Why do we keep rehashing the sex offender treatment effectiveness debate?

Kelly M. Babchishin

There are a lot of meta-analyses and review articles examining the effectiveness of treatment programs for sex offenders. The most recent meta-analysis by Grønnerød and colleagues (2014) did not find that treatment programs reduced the risk of reoffending among sex offenders against children. These authors arrived at the same conclusion that Långström et al. (2013) presented in their systematic review a few months earlier: there is a lack of quality studies, and the limited “good quality” studies do not provide overwhelming support for the effectiveness of sex offender treatment programs. Of course, not all treatment programs are created equal.

In recent years, we have gained a better understanding of factors associated with the reoffending process among sex offenders (e.g., antisocial peers) and those not related to reoffending (e.g., mental illness; for review, see Mann and colleagues, 2010). There is also some evidence to suggest that more recent treatment programs and those that follow effective correctional programming (i.e., Risk, Need, Responsivity principles) are most effective at reducing reoffending.

It is true that we are sorely lacking methodologically rigorous studies examining the effectiveness of sex offender treatment programs. High-quality studies require funds, time, and government support (e.g., randomized-control trials). Yet governments are not known for their keenness in funding sex offender “issues”; they are perhaps more known for eradicating existing funds and introducing sex offender policies that seemingly have more to do with facades than increasing public safety. I wonder how we can shift focus to preventing future victims (what motivates most clinicians and researchers in this field) rather than the current focus on retribution and retaliation, which may be inadvertently increasing victims. Public support for rehabilitative approaches is sorely lacking, but would be necessary to encourage governments to support and perhaps even fund quality treatment outcome studies for sex offenders.

Until then, clinicians will continue to strive to provide high-quality, evidence-based treatment in hopes to help sex offenders succeed in society and thereby reduce future victims. Of course, what constitutes evidence-based treatment can be confusing at times given the state of the research. I truly hope not to read another review article of sex offender treatment effectiveness until new (quality) treatment outcomes studies are published. An updated review of best practices for sex offender treatment programs would be much more interesting (e.g., ATSA Adult Male Standards and Guidelines, 2004). These best practices, however, should be created by a team of experts (both clinicians and researchers), with varying allegiances to treatment approaches.

Suggested citation:
Babchishin, K. M. (2014, March 25). Why do we keep rehashing the sex offender treatment effectiveness debate? [Weblog post]. Retrieved from


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2 thoughts on “Why do we keep rehashing the sex offender treatment effectiveness debate?”

  1. Thanks for this, Kelly!

    I guess the good news from the debates is that clinicians and researchers alike keep coming up with newer and better questions to ask in regards to the outcome studies that ARE available. For example, how do we develop the “got its” that Marques and her colleagues referred to in their 2005 study? And how can we best identify those who “get it”? …and reduce dropouts along the way? etc. I really appreciate your taking the time to post this, and am always ready to assist in any efforts.


    David Prescott

  2. Dear David,

    Thank you so much for your comment. I am glad you enjoyed the post. How best to identify clients who “get it” would certainly be an interesting topic for a future post (as well as future research studies). Would pre-post tests be sufficient or would we want more sensitive tests? Unfortunately, it looks like client engagement is a hard construct to define without a “gold standard” (e.g., a review article on treatment engagement:

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