Saturday, November 16, 2013

A Guest Editorial from ATSA Executive Director, Maia Christopher

Recent media reports have questioned the effectiveness of Florida's sexual offender civil commitment (SOCC) program, which allows for the preventive detention of particularly high risk sexual offenders following completion of their prison terms so that they may complete treatment in a secure facility before returning to the community.

The consequences of sexual offenses can be devastating, and it is understandable that lawmakers, victims and their families, and members of the public seek expedient solutions. In reality, however, preventing sexual abuse is a complex issue. When news media call into question current sexual offender management practices, it is important that members of the community have sufficient information to understand the issues.

The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA, and its Florida chapter FATSA) is an international, multi-disciplinary membership organization dedicated to preventing sexual abuse.  Our members are researchers, clinicians, law enforcement professionals, and victim advocates. ATSA members have contributed to the development of treatment and risk management strategies that reduce reoffending. We also work to promote social policies that will increase community safety and ensure that services are available to victims and their families.  

ATSA recognizes that the reoffenses highlighted by the Sun Sentinel were truly tragic, and that discussions about recidivism rates and risk assessment ring hollow in the wake of a heinous crime. Any victim is one too many.

Over the last 30 years, we have learned a lot about the dynamics of sexual assault. Most victims are abused by someone they know and trust. We also know that not all sexual offenders pose the same degree of risk to the community. Civil commitment is designed for those at highest risk.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states with SOCC statutes must adhere to specific criteria, and individuals may be civilly committed only when (1) they can be diagnosed as having a mental disorder predisposing them to sexual violence, and (2) they are "likely to reoffend" according to a psychological risk assessment. The court emphasized that SOCC requires thoughtful consideration of the need to balance public safety with offender civil liberties, and that quality treatment is what distinguishes civil commitment from incarceration.

Since 1999, over 30,000 incarcerated offenders have been assessed for possible civil commitment in Florida, and over 700 are currently detained. A recent independent review of the program found that of the sexual offenders released to the community, 95% have not been rearrested for a new sex crime. The risk assessment procedures used in Florida are grounded in research to ensure the highest degree of accuracy; however, these methods are not foolproof. Nonetheless, evidence based assessment, treatment, and community reintegration strategies for offenders are vital in our efforts to ensure community safety.

As compelling as it may seem, the simple answer of “locking them all up” would be in violation of the Supreme Court’s rulings. Such a practice would also direct crucial resources away sexual abuse prevention efforts, as well as treatment services for victims.

So, what should we do? First, we must ensure that research guides us in identifying those at highest risk to reoffend. Second, we must target resources toward those most likely to reoffend. Third, we must ensure that sexual offenders returning to the community have both accountability and effective treatment services. This requires close collaboration between law enforcement, probation and parole, victim advocates, and sexual offender treatment providers. 

ATSA members are committed to making society safer. In addition to sexual offender risk management, we believe that lawmakers must make it a priority to prevent sexual abuse from occurring in the first place, to ensure the availability of effective and compassionate services to victims, to facilitate effective child protection programs, and to provide prevention services to at-risk families. No More Victims is our shared goal.

For additional information sexual offenders and sexual violence prevention, visit

Maia Christopher
Executive Director
Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff Maia! A really good summary of the balancing act that is sexual offender assessment, treatment and - where necessary - incarceration. Thank you. Cheers, Jonny ( )