The dangerous prisoners act (sexual offenders) for 2003 was enacted by the parliament of Queensland to not only provide a legal basis for the continued incarceration of sexual offenders and but also to provide a continued control for enabling their rehabilitation. What remains contentious though is the possibility of supervised release of this particular class of prisoners and the impact it shall have on the community. We are of the opinion that this category of dangerous offenders needs to be detained for the longest times possible.
The reality is that sexual offending is a grievous problem especially considering the increasingly large number of victims. As at June 2009 there are almost 10,000 registered offenders across Australia. We also know that a very small percentage of offenders do not get caught. Additionally, only a fraction of these cases are brought forward to the authorities.
One of the factors that shall determine the continued imprisonment of sexual offenders is the weight placed on their possibility of receding back into crime. It is widely believed that most of these sexual crimes are committed not once but over a period of time. So it becomes difficult to imagine someone discarding what became a habit from the simple act of being imprisoned.
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The research on prediction of recidivism among nonsexual offenders shows that the persistent criminals generally tend to be young, abuse alcohol and drugs and have unstable employment. The assumption being that the factors that predict recidivism in nonsexual criminals also applies to sexual offenders (Hanson and Bussiere, 1998).
Another factor that could be considered when analyzing the possibility of release of these dangerous criminals is the nature of the sexual crime. It has been shown that not all sexual offences are the same and that some are actually more deviant than others. The most deviant offenders tend to be those who victimize strangers, use excessive force or select victims much weaker than themselves. The general risk factors to the communities upon the release of this specific group of sexual criminals therefore will tend to be higher. Different sexual offenders re-offend differently.
The mere thought of releasing these psychopathic elements back into the society is not justice. The victims of sexual offences bear their scars for life and therefore the same fate should be passed on to the offenders.
There is also another type of sexual offenders who display general psychological maladjustment. Those in this sub-category generally suffer from low self esteem and assertiveness deficits. It is imperative therefore for the authorities to ascertain that the sexual criminal is able to overcome these challenges before the possibility of supervised release is considered.
It is also known that most offenders feign repentance and comply with their treatment regimens because they know the benefits of appearing remorseful and willing to change include the possibility of early release from prison. It is in this regard that the sexual offenders gain the confidence of sympathetic clinicians and thereby possibilities of early release are fostered.
With statutes in place that vouch for longer sentencing, sex criminals would have no motivation to pretend during their rehabilitation process. They would be forced to focus on their lives more instead of devising ways of obtaining early release. It will be a question of being good for goodness sake.
Understanding why sexual offenders commit assault against women and children, insofar as research has gone still remains a puzzle. Worse still the effectiveness of psychological treatment as a cure for sexual offenders remains debatable. A trial that followed up 231 male sexual offenders for a decade showed that a greater proportion of those who underwent group therapy were later re-arrested. Another study that followed 136 extra familial child molesters who had received phallometric assessment in maximum security psychiatric institution for over a six year period showed that 58 percent were re-arrested or returned to an institution (Brooks-Gordon and Bilby, 2006).
Dangerous and severe personality disorder (DSPD) program was brought to the limelight in 1999 and one of its aims was to establish cognitive behavioral programs for the rehabilitation of sexual and violent offenders. The success of this program as an effective treatment regimen initially led to optimism. However, DSPD has been overshadowed by lack of proper experimental bounds. The earlier claims of its success rate were difficult to analyze. We are unable to tell which types of treatment are effective to which category of sexual offender. The process seems to have failed with regards to its effectiveness among the psychopathic offenders, for whom it was primarily designed. More tests are therefore needed.
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Some studies also indicate that sexual offence is similar to some medical conditions in that there is no cure. It is proposed that effectiveness of the treatments offered would be enhanced if government's focused more on understanding the treatment used to control and moderate the behavior in the offenders, other than to seek to justify the release of prisoners in the pretext that they are rehabilitated and cured.
Recidivism could also be looked at in the perspective of the types of criminals. We have the adolescent-limited criminal and the life-course persistent criminal. The adolescent-limited type tend to outgrow the habit and return to the more conventional life as they age (as they move from adolescent to adulthood), get married and have families. On the other hand, the life-persistent criminal never outgrows the habit. Therefore, most life-course persistent criminals find themselves going back into crime immediately they are released. It is in this category of career criminals that we find most sexual offenders. Sexual criminals hardly do it as a phase in their lives.
If we organize sex criminal elements into the two broad categories that is, adolescent-limited and career criminals, we witness a futility in the prison system's approach to rehabilitate criminals. The adolescent will reform whether he goes to prison or not, while the life-course persistent criminal will only be inhibited by the walls of the prison from his activity. When released, the career criminal goes back to his natural path whether he was rehabilitated or not. The belief here is that the desire to sexually assault is psychologically engrained and therefore the tendency to be a life-course criminal.
While examining sex offenders, dynamic risk assessment should also be conducted. Factors to be looked at are those that may lead him back into sexual offending. Some of these factors include self-management issues, socio-affective problems and self-offending attitudes. Much is known about the static risk factors that lead to increase in risk, but less is known about what changes in dynamic structure lead to an increase or decrease in a person's risk. There is less agreement among the researchers.
The assessment of risk and the prediction as to whether an individual is bound to reoffend have been areas fraught with controversy over many years. Predictions made so far on how dangerous an individual may be in the future were two out of three times likely to be wrong. There are so many false-positive predictions that it is difficult to conclusively base our arguments on the methods to use to assess future risk levels of individual sex offenders.
In spite of this, psychiatrists have continued to provide testimonies in courts because the courts acknowledged that though their predictions are wrong most of the time, they are not wrong all the time. But should we really base our decisions to release sex criminals after a short duration in prison on such grounds? Considering the effect that a single sex re-offender could have on the community it would probably be wiser if we took the lesser risk by incarcerating them for a longer duration.
Another problem arises from the use of sex offender profiles as a risk assessment tool. Data based on profiles of identified groups may prove useful in researching personality constructs and in determining whether an individual exhibits symptoms of a certain psychopathology. However, such data cannot firmly establish that an individual has engaged in a certain type of behavior. It is for this reason that federal courts in the US insist that mental health experts not be allowed to testify whether a defendant could or could not commit a specific type of crime. Therefore, until such a time that we shall have accurate tools to assess the risk posed by the release of sex offenders back into the society, we need to keep them in jail longer.
Nevertheless, scientists have documented factors that have a higher correlation towards recidivism manifested among sexual offenders over time. These factors are not similar to those of other criminal re-offenders. A history of criminal offenses in general and sexual offenses in particular is the most predictive indicator that an individual will reoffend. Any convicts who fall under this bracket should not by any means be allowed back into the society. Failure to comply with law enforcement authorities or medical practitioners during treatment while incarcerated may be re-indicative of re-offense potential. High substance abuse is indicative for almost any criminal tendency and is a factor here as well.
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Sex offenders are with us and regardless of the shortcomings we must devise a way of managing them and the risk that they pose. The general consensus among prominent researchers is that there is no solid evidence to support any particular treatment as effective in minimizing recidivism in sexual criminals, and neither is there evidence on the contrary. Until such a time that more shall be known, we will therefore be forced to use the different modalities that are currently available, namely: organic interventions, penile plethysmographs, polygraphs, containment approach and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Looking at the issue from a different perspective, some studies suggest that offenders themselves run a greater risk of being victims of violent crime. Therefore on their release from prison, sexual offenders could face the possibility of creating a cycle of crime and punishment. Victims become offenders as offenders become victims. Although such cases are rare, they are worth taking into account when faced with the decision of releasing sexual offenders from prison (Deadman, 2004).
Moreover, working with sex offenders from the therapists' point of view is physically, mentally and emotionally draining and is easier to conduct within the institutional confines of a prison. Monitoring and evaluation of the offenders becomes difficult when they are released. (Sheela, 2001).
Individuals convicted of offenses such as sexual assault and aggravated sexual assault need to be evaluated. For those sexual offenses that are not serious then psychological evaluations are recommended so as to assess and prevent the individual from committing a more grievous offense in the future. However, it is our wish that the grievous sex offenders be incarcerated for the longest time possible.
Brooks-Gordon, B & Bilby, C. (2006) Psychological interventions for treatment of adult sex offenders. British Medical Journal. 333, 5-6
Deadman, D & MacDonald, Z. (2004) Offenders as victims of crime? An investigation into the relationship between criminal behavior and victimization. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series A (Statistics in Society). 167 (1)
Maden, A. (2007) Dangerous and severe personality disorder: antecedents and origins. British Journal of Psychiatry. 190, 8-11
Hanson, R.K & Bussière, M.T. (1998) Predicting relapse: A meta-analysis of sexual offender recidivism studies. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 66 (2), 348-362
Scheela, R. A. (2001) Sex offender treatment: Therapists' experiences and perceptions.
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