A more therapeutic approach to rehabilitating people convicted of sexual offences?

Mike Guilfoyle
Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The fine American author Russell Banks remarkable twelfth novel, Lost Memory of Skin, takes the reader unflinchingly to a darker side of American society. The novel focuses on the attempts of a convicted sex offender, simply known as Kid, recently released on parole (with a range of restrictions on movement, contact and GPS tagged) to try to reintegrate into a community as a modern day 'outcast'.

Reading the book, I sensed a disturbing resonance with a particular casework experience whilst working as a Probation Officer with John (not his real name). I had not prepared the original pre-sentence report, which was undertaken at the time by one of my probation colleagues who was specifically trained to undertake more specialist interventions with those convicted of sexual offending. The fact that John had been sentenced to a term of custody in excess of 12 months, would normally have enabled him to enrol on a bespoke prison-based programme sex offender treatment programme (SOTP) in anticipation of release on licence. In the circumstances, this proved impractical, so once in the community John was placed on a waiting list for its community equivalent.

Regrettably, before he could complete the programme, his licence had been revoked, for what appeared a minor infraction, and I was then allocated responsibility for the balance of his sentence. John was insistent that he had complied with the terms of his licence, and was considerably vexed at the supplementary restrictions arising from his index offences.  The restrictions had been imposed at the point of sentence, under the auspices of a sex offender prevention order (SOPO), which had an indefinite time frame and prevented his entry (breaches imposed heavy custodial penalties) to certain geographical areas and educational premises.

Proper and proportionate safety measures in place to ensure that the victims (or future potential victims) were duly protected are important. However, these restrictions became an almost intractable source of professional disagreement and our sessions often became frustratingly adversarial. Hostel placement was secured at the outset of supervision on licence, as a prelude to move-on accommodation from a well established third sector provider. The facets of John's lifestyle, which might point towards potential sources of risk-laden behaviour, began to assume a more measured place in our regular supervisory meetings.

One of the palpable tensions that often arose in meetings was his being placed on the Sex Offenders’ Register, which whilst part of the shaping legislative reality for many of those who commit sexual offences, appeared also to act as a disincentive for John to take greater responsibility for his harmful actions. Furthermore, in some ways this appeared to entrench some of the well-documented distortions in thinking that are highlighted in this area of probation work.

Working with denial is something that probation officers are well placed to address in client work.  Certainly I had cause to think more critically, following my lengthy professional relationship with John, at whether the approaches enshrined in current criminal and adversarial approaches to sexual offending can often seem at times anti-therapeutic? That is not to downplay the enduring harm such wrongdoing often causes victims. John did engage well, albeit with considerable ambivalence (a not unfamiliar reaction) to treatment and rehabilitation and indeed completed the statutory part of his sentence (the SOPO remains active and is monitored by the police in his current locality). Certainly the rights of victims to be properly heard and the need for the balance of legal rights for those convicted of sexual (and other offences) not to be needlessly compromised, particularly at a time of the heightened politicisation of sexual offending, has to be duly recognised.

The recent landmark report from the Australian based Centre for Innovative Justice, Responses to Sexual Offences, offers a refreshingly innovative model on how therapeutic justice principles might better operate within the conventional criminal justice system, focussed as it is in this most challenging area of criminal offending.

John would often say to me, 'Mike, how long do I have to carry this mark of being a sex offender with me?’.