Leaders: Treatment key for sex offences

FROM Jimmy Savile to Stuart Hall, sex offenders are dominating headlines.

It can be argued that they cause more serious and lasting harm to their victims than any other criminals, apart from murderers. The issues of confining and, where possible, rehabilitating them present society with an intractable problem. The revelation that more than 100 sex offenders in Scottish prisons are refusing treatment designed to reduce the risk of their re-offending is deeply concerning. But their intransigence also exposes an anomaly in the justice system: if criminals convicted of drugs offences are prescribed treatment as part of their sentence, refusal to co-operate can trigger an extension of their prison term; yet no such sanction exists for sex offenders. A serious sex offender can reject treatment and will still be released automatically two-thirds of the way through his sentence. Such indulgence is not in the interests either of the offender or of public safety.

The nature and scale of this problem is detailed in a study Sex offender – lack of engagement, by forensic psychologist Sarah Miller. Its analysis of the situation at Dumfries and Edinburgh prisons where 250 sex offenders are incarcerated provides a comprehensive picture of the problem. At the time the research was carried out last year, 70 prisoners at Dumfries and 31 at Edinburgh were refusing treatment. To those must be added an unquantifiable number at other prisons, so that the overall figure must far exceed 100. The chief value of the report is its identification of denial of guilt as the motivation of sex offenders in refusing treatment.

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It is a cliché that alcoholics cannot be cured until they admit their problem. A similar psychological barrier affects sex offenders. Many insistently deny their guilt, in the face of forensic evidence, witness testimonies at their trials and conviction by juries. Considering the low level of rape convictions it is, to say the least, unlikely that miscarriages of justice have occurred on any scale and certainly not in 100 cases out of 580. Instead of coming to terms with their guilt and trying to achieve rehabilitation, sex offenders in denial fabricate a myth of their own victimhood and launch long series of appeals at taxpayers’ expense to support that delusion. Such conduct not only gives further offence to victims and wastes public money, it also increases the likelihood of their reoffending after release and poses an additional danger to the public.

The key component of every sex offender’s prison term should be treatment focused on his individual circumstances and entailing a major effort at rehabilitation. At present, without the offender’s consent, that cannot happen. There are reasonable human rights grounds for this frustrating situation: in a free society enforced psychiatric treatment, however innocuous, cannot be imposed on an individual who has not legally been sectioned. So, prison staff are reduced to making efforts to circumvent the firewall of denial by offering assistance with non-sexual behavioural problems such as anger, anxiety or depression. All credit to them for their dedication, but stalking sex offenders with the psychological equivalent of a butterfly net is hardly satisfactory.

While there is no universal solution, one obvious reform would be to change sentencing policy for sex offenders, so that refusal to accept treatment automatically extends prison terms. It might not change the attitudes of sex offenders in deep denial, but it could overcome the resistance of some, leading to their potential rehabilitation and a consequent improvement in security for the public.