Sex Offenders and Scientific Dissembling

When making a claim that “no evidence from academic or policy research has shown” that something like sex offender treatment works, it’s advisable to have the facts straight on the evidence that you claim supports your point.

So, when the material you cite turns out to suggest positive effects contrary to your claim, I suppose it’s too much to ask that you then go a step further and see what other available evidence on the effects of sex offender rehabilitation suggests in addition. Which is a shame, really, because more recent research would show even stronger effects overall, and important differences between types of treatment delivery that really do matter (such as, for example, the fact that community-based sex offender treatment works far better than when it’s delivered in custodial settings).

My colleague and I say as much in our response that appears today in the BMJ.

Look, even in a climate that’s become generally receptive to offender rehabilitation, the language of ‘non-non-nons’ still frames sex offenders as somehow untouchable and off the table. But unpalatable as it may seem, sex offenders consistently report 1) low reoffending rates (both for sex crimes and for general offense types), and 2) impressive susceptibility to rehabilitative treatment.

Escaping the mass incarceration trap is going to involve some hard choices about who we release from custody, and soon enough we’ll realize that isolating clemency to the ‘non-non-non’ population alone isn’t going to get us the desired distance (not even close, as it happens).

Keeping sex offenders locked up may serve political ends, but don’t make an appeal to science to justify it — they may very well be the next safest group of people to release.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Johann Koehler

Johann Koehler is a doctoral student in the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He tweets at @KoehlerJA.