Monday, October 14, 2013

A Guest Post by Katie Gotch and Joan Tabachnick

Sexual Violence Perpetrators are Common Among Adolescents…or Are They? The Power of Language When Discussing Sexual Violence

A recently published study entitled The Prevalence Rates of Male and Female Sexual Violence Perpetrators in a National Sample of Adolescents (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2013) has generated quite a response from both professionals and the mainstream media.  This response is not surprising as the article is one of the first investigations into the prevalence of sexual violence among adolescents who are not involved in the criminal justice system.
The study utilized data from a longitudinal self-report survey (Growing Up with Media) which focused on the possible associations between exposure to violent media and violent behavior.  Information was obtained from youth-caregiver pairs in 2010 and 2011 through questions about forced sexual contact, coercive sex, attempted rape, and completed rape. Key to the question about consent was the phrase “when I knew they did not want to.”  The results of the study indicated 9% of the sample reported some type of sexual violence perpetration in their lifetime, which included:
  • 8% (n = 84) who kissed, touched or made someone else do something sexual when the youth knew the other person did not want to do (defined by the researchers as forced sexual contact)
  • 3% (n = 33) got someone to give in to sex when he or she knew the other person did not want to have sex  (defined as coercive sex)
  • 3% (n = 43) attempted, but were not able to force someone to have sex (defined as attempted rape)
  • 2% (n = 18) forced someone to have sex with him or her (defined as completed rape)
  • Overlap between the categories was noted and, among perpetrators, 12% reported two different behaviors, 11% reported three different behaviors, and 9% reported all four types of behavior
Other critical information noted by the authors was:
  • “…consumption of X-rated material significantly differed for perpetrators and nonperpetrators of all types of sexual violence.  Differences were almost entirely explained by whether the material was violent in nature.” 
  • “Youth living in low income households were less likely to report attempted rape than youth in higher income households.”  
And, the most controversial of the findings:

·       “By ages 18 or 19 years, the split of male to female perpetrators was nearly equivalent.  More females reported older victims, and more males reported younger victims.” 
This research is invaluable and we applaud the researchers for investigating such a difficult topic and providing some important baseline information about national rates of sexual violence in adolescence. However, the conclusions made from the data and even the title selected for this article have been problematic and, in many ways, represent a lost important opportunity for deeper discussion about this issue.
Despite the authors’ identification of sexual violence as a public health problem and numerous recommendations about the need to develop comprehensive education and bystander intervention strategies to prevent sexual violence, the title of the article labeled all of these children and youth as perpetrators and the text continued this labeling of children and teens.  Included in this perpetrator label was the 2% who completed rape as well as kids as young as 12 who “kissed, touched, or made someone else do something sexual when the youth knew the other person did not want to.”  The authors also noted that “few perpetrators experience consequences:  only 2 percent reported being arrested,” and then continued to describe the need to enhance detection and investigation of sexual violence cases.  By their own definition, many of these cases, even if reported, would not be legally considered sexual violence and these children and adolescents would not be considered perpetrators.  In our opinion, this speaks to the need to include other forms of intervention and accountability when speaking about children and young teens who cannot be reported for their sexual decisions.  These teens clearly need to be accountable for their actions and require instruction about the importance of consent and how to negotiate these sexual questions with peers. 
Since the publication of the article just over a week ago, the media latched onto the descriptions of these youth as “perpetrators” with article titles such as 10 Percent of U.S. Youths Cause Sexual Violence:  Females are just as likely to be perpetrators as males; 1 in 10 Young People Have Perpetrated Sexual Violence; and Sexual Violence Common Among Adolescents (e.g.;;  
Not only does the media response reinforce the incorrect focus on these youth as “perpetrators,” there was blatant misinterpretation of the data which was then communicated to the public as fact.  One of the more egregious examples of this was the statement that “females are just as likely to be perpetrators as males” – this conclusion was taken from the discussion about age of first perpetration which indicated that, prior to age 18 or 19, the majority of perpetrators were male and it was not until age 18 or 19 that the split between male to female perpetrators was nearly equivalent.  This does NOT translate that females are just as likely to commit rape as males. Rather, it indicates that, when a female in this sample first “engaged in perpetration”, the female was more often 18 or 19 at the time rather than the younger ages of 12 to 17.  And, for these females, the “victim” was also most likely to be older, which again speaks to the concern about whether these young women understand the concept of consent, victimization, and power in sexual relationships.  The data also clearly indicated that females engaged in perpetration behavior at a lower rate than males (attempted rape: n = 43, 35 were male; completed rape: n = 18, 13 were male), not that they are “just as likely to be perpetrators as males.”
The language used by the authors significantly impacted the message they provided and/or how it was perceived by others.  If our intent is to prevent sexual violence, then our words need to be framed in a way that allows people to begin a conversation about the behaviors we are trying to stop.  In our writing and our publications we need to begin to describe the behaviors that children and teens may engage in, rather than label these youth as “perpetrators.”  In a popular publication of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, an overview of children with sexual behavior problems is labeled by the behaviors and not “child perpetrators.” If the focus is on behavior rather than the label, those in a position to intervene will be much more likely to say something or do something when they see behaviors that concern them.  Imagine if this article and others that follow were to use a true public health approach that focuses on and describes behavior – the media will then be unable to respond just with shock, but will instead need to begin to ask: what is the responsibility of adults, and society, to stop the first time perpetration of these behaviors. 
Katie Gotch, M.A.
Coordinator of Public Affairs 
Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers

Joan Tabachnick, M.A.
DSM Consulting
Chair, ATSA Prevention Committee

Friday, October 11, 2013

SVP Risk: Challenging “Likely to Reoffend"

“…existing research indicates the vast majority of sex offenders, including those with a relatively high sexual recidivism risk, can be safely managed in the community.

Dr. Grant Duwe
Research Director, MN DOC

With those words and supporting research, Grant Duwe has made it more difficult to justify sexual offender civil commitment (SOCC). Duwe is the Research Director of the Minnesota Department of Corrections – the source of most of the SVP clients at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP). This new research [1] might provide the strongest empirical evidence to date that the gateway into SOCC should be a little tighter, and the exits out could safely be a little wider.

Duwe’s research briefly stated: Duwe administered the MnSOST-3 to 105 men under SOCC at MSOP (about 15% of the census). He applied the results to data from other recidivism studies to arrive at an estimated rate of future reoffending (assuming SVPs were immediately and unconditionally discharged). The outcome projected that, after four years, about one in ten men would reoffend. Using extrapolation and the more sensitive measure of arrests, rather than convictions, Duwe estimated that over ten years (an additional six years) one more SVP in ten would reoffend. When he extended his estimates out over 50 years (effectively the lifetime for most offenders), he determined that in the subsequent 40 years another 10% would reoffend, for a total 50-year recidivism rate of 30%. Duwe concluded that, in their lifetime, seven in ten released SVPs would not reoffend.

When he applied the same data to the higher threshold of conviction (rather than arrest) rate, he determined, in their lifetime, four out of five (82.4%) SVPs would not reoffend. He went further in making adjustments for guys[2] who had reoffended but not been arrested, and still determined the overwhelming majority of SVPs in the sample would not reoffend.

Duwe’s research projects lifetime recidivism (re-arrests) of 28%, but notes that with estimation error and a CI of 95%, 50-year (lifetime) recidivism has a lower bound of 21.4% and an upper bound of 35.7%. With some measure of successful treatment, applications of RNR principles, and prudent post-release monitoring and supervision, Duwe’s research supports a lower actuarial risk of SVP reoffending than widely believed. On an individual basis, some dynamic variables may be mitigating, while others could be aggravating. Still, at face value, this outcome calls into question one of the fundamental criteria for SOCC: establishing “likely” or “highly likely” to reoffend.[3] This question of semantics was at issue in a recent case before the Minnesota Court of Appeals. [4]

With the controversies swirling around the use of certain diagnoses to establish the “mental disorder” requirement for SOCC, concerns about the dynamic nature of “volition,” and indications that most actuarial risk tools tolerate a high level of false positives, Duwe’s research further confounds efforts to sustain a sound empirical basis for SOCC.

Other recent research supports the contention that actual recidivism for SVPs is much lower than public perception or other actuarial predictions. In 2012, Robin Wilson, Jan Looman, and their colleagues published research [5] reporting 3.2% - 5.5% recidivisms for recently released SVPs. The study had a short follow-up period (2.5 years), but in that time, 14 of 253 (5.5%) men released from the Regional Treatment Centre [6]had reoffended, and only one out of 31 guys released from the Florida Civil Commitment Center had reoffended. The offenders in the Wilson et al. (2012) study were selected for their completion of treatment, but the results indicate that reoffending for these SVPs are consistent with low rates of sexual reoffending found in other studies.

There are some SVP recidivism data published in the annual surveys of the Sexual Offender Civil Commitment Programs Network (SOCCPN). Not all SOCCPN members contribute data to the annual survey, and the compiled results have an anecdotal quality to them, but with about 17 of 20 SVP states reporting outcomes, the annual surveys of programs have some empirical basis. The 2011 Annual Survey reports that 75 more men had been fully released and there was no reported sexual or non-sexual recidivism. The 2012 Annual Survey reported that four clients were known to have sexually reoffended out of an apparent total of 159 discharges. The latter survey did not indicate the time period for which those four clients had been released.

In a 2011 review of SOCC in the state of Virginia, it was reported that, of the 78 clients on conditional release since the program’s inception in 2003, three (4%) have reoffended.[7] The same report cites SVP recidivism rates ranging from zero to five percent in six other states. The Virginia report indicates that some reoffending was of a technical nature, further illustrating some of the problems with recidivism data. Even with some ambiguity around outcome data, it would seem reasonable to conclude from these studies that there is a low incidence of sexual recidivism, even among SVP clients.

In the interests of accuracy, there is research reporting much higher rates of sexual reoffending among certain groups of sexual offenders, but if it is older research, it may simply be outdated. From 1990 to 2002 the three year reconviction rate for sexual offenders in MN dropped from over 16% to under 3%. [1]   More recent research from the MN DOC reveals a four-year reconviction rate of 2.8%,[8] which is consistent with data from other states.[9]  With some actuarial risk tools able to distinguish risk factors that correlate to reoffending, some sexual offenders can be determined to be at higher actuarial risk for reoffending, but the point remains that sexual offending and reoffending has dramatically declined in the last two decades,[10] and the data herein indicates that trend appears to also hold for high-risk sexual offenders.

Duwe raises important questions about public polices with regard to sexual offending and the cost of crime control. Actuarially, if ten guys were released from MSOP today, four years from now nine of them will have not reoffended. Is that acceptable risk management? Some would argue that reducing sexual abuse at any cost is in the public interest, but public officials have a responsibility for cost-effective public safety. With the 2013 cost of SOCC in Minnesota, Duwe’s research supports the contention that actuarially, the public cost of preventing one in ten SVPs from reoffending over four years is $4,750,000. [11]

With 95% of all sexual offenses being committed by first time offenders [12], sexual abuse professionals agree that we need to do a lot more on the side of preventing first time offenders. Is it a good allocation of public funds to spend $4.75M to try to stop one known offender from possibly reoffending?  It seems investing $4.75M in broad sexual abuse prevention efforts might save a great many more future victims from harm.

Given public intolerance for any incidence of sexual offending, a prediction of one in ten guys reoffending over four years will not sit well with many. Duwe’s estimate of “only” three in ten SVP clients reconvicted over 50 years may be of little comfort to the general public, but the courts, in their need to reconcile “likely” to reoffend, may take another view of this research.

Those that have been following the MSOP saga know that there has been only one guy that has remained conditionally released out of almost 700 clients over nearly 20 years. No one has ever completed the treatment program and, if current conditions hold, clients are far more likely to die at MSOP than be released. [13]  This description is not to lay blame on the doorstep of MSOP, but rather to illustrate the overwhelming sense of hopelessness faced by MSOP clients, and a mandate for MSOP staff made ineffectual by unresolved competing interests. SVP programs elsewhere in the US face comparable challenges.

The oldest SVP program in the US, in the state of Washington, was under federal oversight from 1994-2007.  In 2012 the federal courts also intervened in Minnesota, certified all clients at MSOP to be part of a class-action lawsuit, and signaled that immediate changes are needed.  Some changes are in the works, but the executive and legislative branches of Minnesota’s state government would be wise to recognize the opportunity to take stock of Duwe’s research.

Duwe has provided empirical support for a more effective balance between prudent public safety and effective management of SVPs. His report is consistent with recommendations found in the 2011 report from the MN Office of the Legislative Auditor, and with the December, 2012 report from the MN SOCC Advisory Task Force. To be sure, not all the clients at MSOP should be immediately released into the community, but Duwe has documented that there is every reason to believe that the low base rates for sexual offending broadly, would also inure to SVP programs.

Principles of Risk-Need-Responsivity have empirical support for guiding the treatment and management of sexual offenders; there’s every reason to believe it would also be useful to guide SOCC. Courts might be able to use the option of a judicial stay of commitment or order less restrictive alternatives, when appropriate - perhaps community-based residential programs or outpatient programs as in Texas and other states. Outpatient or aftercare programs can track SVPs with active GPS, to help ensure public safety. Good supervision and monitoring combined with proven support programs such as Circles of Support and Accountability offer alternatives to secure detention for SVPs.

Duwe has quite credibly documented that a majority of the clients at MSOP could be safely managed in the community. If those who currently control SOCC in Minnesota and other states ignore the relevance of Duwe’s compelling research, it is quite likely that the state and federal courts will not.

Jon Brandt, MSW, LICSW

Note: Dr. Duwe has given permission to publish his email address if readers have questions about his study or would like a copy of his research:

[1] Duwe, G. (in press). To what extent does civil commitment reduce sexual recidivism? Estimating the selective incapacitation effects in Minnesota. Journal of Criminal Justice; online 7/5/2013.

Abstract: This study examines the selective incapacitation effects of civil commitment on sexual reoffending among 105 Minnesota sex offenders who were civilly committed between 2004 and 2006. The Minnesota Sex Offender Screening Tool-3, a sexual recidivism risk assessment instrument, was used to estimate what the four-year sexual recidivism rate would have been for these offenders had they been released to the community. Integration of Survival with Quality of Life (iSQoL) software was used to extrapolate the survival curves over a 50-year period to develop a lifetime sexual recidivism estimate. If the 105 civilly committed sex offenders had been released to the community, an estimated nine percent would have been reconvicted of a new sex offense within four years. Civilly committing these offenders therefore likely reduced the overall four-year sexual recidivism rate by 12 percent. The results further suggest that if these offenders had been released to the community, an estimated 28 percent would be rearrested for another sex offense within their lifetime. To better align the costs of civil commitment with its public safety benefits, states operating these programs should emphasize the use of intermediate alternatives in the community for a more positive return on investment.

[2] There are over 4,200 men in SVP programs in the US and appear to be fewer than ten females (SOCCPN, 2012); male pronouns and references are not only appropriate, but because virtually all sex offender studies have male cohorts, some studies may not be valid with females. Some guys enter SOCC directly from the juvenile system, before they get a chance to be “men.” More than 50 guys at MSOP do not have an adult sexual offense.

[3] Assuming statutory recidivism risk estimates are intended to be absolute (rather than relative).

[4] In Re: the Civil Commitment of Cedrick Scott Ince.

[5] Wilson, R. J., Looman, J., Abracen, J., & Pake, D. R. (2012). Comparing sexual offenders at the Regional Treatment Centre (Ontario) and the Florida Civil Commitment Center. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology XX(X) 1–19.

[6] Canada does not have SOCC; the Regional Treatment Centre is for treating higher risk offenders.

[7] Review of the Civil Commitment of Sexually Violent Predators (2011). Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, Commonwealth of Virginia; November 14, 2011.

[8] Of the 1,653 sex offenders released from Minnesota Prisons between 2004 and 2006, 47 (2.8 percent) had been reconvicted of a new sex offense within four years of their release from prison. (Duwe, 2013) at p. 14.  Among the 220 sex offenders released from prison during the 1990s, by the end of 2010, 41 (18.6 percent) had been reconvicted of a new sex offense. Among the 261 referred offenders who were not committed, 17 (6.5%) were reconvicted of a new sex crime within four years. Of the 1,392 offenders who were reviewed but not referred, 30 (2.2%) reoffended within four years. (Duwe, 2013) at p. 15.

[9] Recidivism among sex offenders in Connecticut, State of Connecticut, Office of Policy and Management, Criminal Justice Policy & Planning Division, February 15, 2012; at p. 5.
In 2005, 746 offenders who had served a prison sentence for a least one sex-related offense were released or discharged from prison. Over the next five years:
· 27 (3.6%) of these men were arrested and charged with a new sex crime.
· 20 (2.7%) were convicted for new sex offense, and
· 13 (1.7%) were returned to prison to serve a sentence for a new sex crime.

[10] Jones, L.M., Finkelhor, D., & Halter, S. (2006). Child maltreatment trends in the 1990s: Why does neglect differ from sexual and physical abuse? Child Maltreatment, 11, 107-120.

[11] Duwe estimates one SVP in ten would reoffend in four years. The cost of keeping ten SVPs at MSOP for four years at a per diem of $326, for FY 2013 (, would be calculated at: $326 x 365 x four years x 10 SVPs = $4,759,600.

[12] Sandler, J.C., Freeman, N. J., & Socia, K. M. (2008) DOES A WATCHED POT BOIL? A Time-Series Analysis of New York State’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Law; Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 4, 284–302.

[13] At least 24 guys have died at MSOP (SOCCNP, 2012), furthering clients’ perception of endless therapeutic goals that don’t credibly lead to release.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A guest post by Dr. Kieran McCartan

The Punitive-Social Action Paradox

Kieran McCartan, Ph.D.

It is an interesting time in the world of sexual offender policy and practice internationally, with what seems to be something of a paradoxical turn. Governments are becoming more conservative in how they respond to sexual offending (with increased and more punitive sentences) while simultaneously investing in viable community engagement/partnerships in an attempt to solve issues around sexual offender reintegration. This is interesting because it raises the questions of why this has happened and what the future is for sexual offender management, post-austerity? Is this truly an informed government response based on what different “publics” want (e.g., more punitive sanctions, greater public protection, and increased devolvement of criminal justice responses so that they can feel engaged as well as represented), a complex response to austerity, or too many political voices talking at the same time in the run up to election?

If we look at the UK as a case in point, there has been a series of changes in the structure, function, and role of the criminal justice system in dealing with offenders. This has come as a result of government policies (Conservative - Liberal Democratic coalition), heightened and ongoing media discourses (resulting from the Wales care home scandal, increased reporting of historical crimes,  Operation Yewtree focusing on celebrity sexual abuse cases, and a refocus on online sexual abuse and child sexual abuse imagery), and austerity cuts. The outcome has been two interrelated but separate responses, creating a paradox (of sorts):
1. Changes to the existing systems - During the life of the current coalition government (2010 onwards), there has been financial change with continued reductions in police, probation, and prison funding across the board. This has resulted in major changes in the construction and layout in the criminal justice systems of the three judicial areas (England & Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland). This has seen:
    • The introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners in England & Wales, based on an American model;
    • The merging of the eight Scottish police forces into one ‘national’ police force;
    • The restructuring of probation in England & Wales from a multitude of probation areas into one probation board with local boards empowered by self-determination and localism;
    • The closure of prisons in the UK resulting in the restructuring of existing prisons (e.g., Ashfield prison has been converted from a youth offenders prison to a sexual offenders over summer 2013) and the resurfacing of conversations of a titan supermax prison for the UK; and
    • A new approach to offender management and rehabilitation, including with respect to sexual offenders; touted by the Ministry of Justice as focusing on social capital and desistance.
All of these issues contribute to a belief that existing agencies are being asked to do more with less in an era when sentencing guidelines regarding sexual violence are being re-examined and more people are being prosecuted for sexual offences. These developments will require that alternatives to ‘traditional’ criminal justice responses need to be found.
2. Changes in the role of the public engagement - The current coalition government’s push towards greater community engagement, localism, and social action in the field of criminal justice has also presented challenges. The government believe that communities need to assist the criminal justice system in the reintegration of offenders, because offenders—especially sexual offenders—come from communities, and they will go back to communities upon release. However, in many cases, communities have been reluctant to assume these responsibilities.
This does not mean that community members will somehow replace Probation, Police, or Social Work. Rather, the expectation is that they will work in tandem, meaning that the public should play some key role in assisting offenders to reengage with the larger community during re-entry. This is based on the notion that positive social capital can help to reduce reoffending through encouraging desistance; because offenders with community engagement will feel less isolated, more integrated and are, therefore, more likely engage with others in ways that are more pro-social and, ultimately, less harmful. Such efforts can be seen in various restorative justice projects in the UK and internationally; for example, A.I.M, New Leaf, and Circles of Support and Accountability. The CoSA project in Hampshire and Thames Valley (now known as Circles South-East) recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, with an attendant evaluation.
The social action/community partnership approach also has a secondary public health function, apart from offender reintegration. This function is to educate the community about the realities of offenders and offending, so that they are better able to detect, prevent, and report. However, there is a real world misconception about social action and community engagement—cost. In the age of austerity, community-centric, social action approaches often use volunteers, who can be seen as cost-saving as opposed to the cost-neutral or cost-deficit approach of using professionals (e.g., Probation, Social Workers, etc). In reality, this is not the case, as volunteer programs have costs associated with design and implementation, training, and program support (i.e., they require some aspect of supervision by a trained professional).  Cost-benefit analyses of CoSA projects in the UK and USA were recently published, each showing substantial benefits to the use of volunteers in sexual offender re-entry.
Although the focus here has been on the UK example, this punitive-social action paradox is truly a worldwide debate, with increased regulation and debate, changing attitudes regarding reintegration, and an increased public debate about “governmentality” and control in criminal justice. For instance, we have seen the following issues and events unfold over the recent past:
  1. Punitive Action: The investigation and prosecution of rape in India; a conservative turn in criminal justice policy in Canada; increased conversations about the role and responsibility of the internet internationally; and civil commitment, community notification, and zoning restriction debates in the USA.
  2. Social Action: The international growth in movements like Circles of Support and Accountability; increased public health debates worldwide regarding sexual violence prevention, including but not limited to school education; and the development of outreach programmes for persons at risk, like Project Prevention Dunkenfeld in Germany.
This leaves us with an interesting paradox, for on one hand the government is saying that sexual offenders are problematic and, as such, we need to be more punitive and their sentencing reviewed. On the other hand, they are saying that criminal justice funding is being cut, services restructured and, therefore, the community must play a greater role. So, which is the correct answer/interpretation? The answer is, as we know, both and neither. Sexual offenders are truly a heterogeneous population where a one size fits all model struggles. We are keenly aware that approaches appropriate for one may not be appropriate for another. How do we resolve this paradox? I am not sure that we can, but what we can do is be politically and socially engaged so that we offer clear, consistent, and informed advice to both statutory and community groups so that reasonable decisions are made that have the potential to balance public protection against offender rehabilitation, risk management, and reintegration.

Dr. Kieran McCartan is an Associate Professor in Criminology at the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK.