With the start of a new year, we at the SAJRT Blog (Myself, David and Jon) thought that we would devote the first blog to what we thought were three stand-out journal articles of 2014. We have each written about one journal article, which are personal choices by the bloggers, and not based on data regarding any journal downloads or citations.
Lewis, Klettke and Day published their paper, entitled “Sentencing in child sexual assault cases: factors influencing judicial decision-making”, in the December edition of the Journal of Sexual Aggression. This article stood out to me as being quite salient as it tackled one of the main issues that often arises in public understandings of sexual abuse, and related punishment, sentencing. The article discussed the factors that involve decision making in CSA cases in terms of sentencing and verdict. The research was based upon 113 cases of CSA in Australia from 1998 – 2009. The results indicated that the main factors that affected judicial decision making where (1) creditability (i.e., if the victim is not seen as credible by the judge this impacts the sentence handed down), (2) behavioral evidence (i.e., the behavior of the child victim before and/or post event, with lower level harmful behaviors being seen as indicative of CSA as well as higher level ones), and (3) offence factors (i.e., young victims and more victims resulted in long sentences). This research is important as it is on an under researched area, talks to the need more multi-profession working, the existence of sexual abuse myths within the system by professionals (who should have a better and more realistice perception) and a need for better education on the reality of CSA, and its impact upon victims, for the legal system.Although this research was based in Australia it speaks to a wider international issue. (KM)
A study that has garnered less discussion than one might think is by Karl Hanson, Andrew J. R. Harris, Leslie Helmus, & David Thornton, “High-Risk Sex Offenders Might not be High Risk Forever,” published in Journal of Interpersonal Violence. In brief (and taken from the abstract), the authors followed and aggregated sample (drawn from 21 smaller samples) of 7,740 sexual offenders to examine the risk they posed for sexual recidivism over a 20 year follow-up period. Overall, the risk of sexual recidivism was highest during the first few years after release, and decreased substantially the longer individuals remained sex offence-free in the community. This pattern was particularly strong for the high risk sexual offenders (defined by Static-99R scores). Whereas the 5 year sexual recidivism rate for high risk sex offenders was 22% from the time of release, this rate decreased to 4.2% for the offenders in the same static risk category who remained offence-free in the community for 10 years. The recidivism rates of the low risk offenders were consistently low (1% to 5%) for all time periods. The authors state that these results suggest that offence history is a valid, but time dependent, indicator of the propensity to sexually reoffend.
What can professionals take away from these findings? Perhaps the most important lesson is that risk reduces with the passage of time in the community, and that this must be accounted for in risk assessment. However, professionals and the public alike have heard statements to the effect that “once a sex offender always a sex offender.” While many in our field have long known that this statement is untrue, Hanson, Harris, Helmus, & Thornton’s study challenges all professionals to think differently about persistence in, and desistance from crime.
What lessons can policymakers draw from this study? The current state of our research makes clear that we should consider short-term, high-intensity, cost-effective responses to sexual offending (such as providing opportunities to complete treatment programs) to longer term, cost-ineffective, and low intensity responses that have demonstrated no effect on reducing risk (such as lifetime GPS monitoring; see Smith, Goggin, & Gendreau, 2002). Clearly, even one sexual re-offense is one too many and virtually everyone wants to prevent further sexual harm. This study illustrates the need for empirically supported risk assessment in order to best allocate public resources. Only then can we claim that we are engaging in the most effective ways possible to prevent sexual abuse. (DP)
Hanson’s 2014 article on desistance, as David reviewed, has implications that are far-reaching and yet to be realized. If fidelity to evidence-based practices (EBP) is foundational in the treatment and management of those who have sexually offended, Hanson’s research, simply stated, should result in significant adjustments to sex offender policies and practices, both systemically and as applied to individual clients. It is incumbent on professionals to actually use new research when it reveals outdated practices. This point is central to a 2014 Aggression and Violent Behavior article by Theresa Gannon and Tony Ward.
In “Where has all the Psychology Gone? A Critical Review of Evidence-Based Psychological Practice in Correctional Settings,” Gannon & Ward wrote, “The correctional psychology discipline is facing a crisis - [the] correctional psychologists’ mounting neglect of evidence-based practice… [that] stems from psychologists’ acquiescence to the risk and security oriented policies of correctional systems.”
Gannon & Ward discuss the “immense tension between punishment and rehabilitation proponents,” which has existed for more than 100 years. They describe the “dual relationship” that therapists must straddle when institutional security imposes constraints on privileged communication and therapeutic relationships. Because security concerns are legitimate, the therapeutic alliance, which is vital to positive therapeutic outcomes, is continuously under pressure. The therapeutic alliance is further compromised by institutional considerations masquerading as therapeutic concerns. Sometimes, psychotherapists are forced into managing security issues, while correctional officers and undertrained paraprofessionals are often required to exercise roles that should be in the domain of experienced clinical staff.
Gannon & Ward are not naïve to the gap between the ideals of efficacious psychotherapy and the realities of providing services to a large number of clients, within institutions that operate under politically-imposed constraints. Indeed, they argue that these are reasons why licensed psychotherapists should assert professional and ethical responsibilities to EBP, rather than simply capitulate to competing concerns. Gannon & Ward don’t specifically refer to SVP or civil commitment programs, but their arguments would seem to be even more applicable in settings where there is a clear mandate to provide efficacious psychotherapy to involuntary clients.
It would be wrong to conclude that “Where has all the Psychology Gone” is a scolding of psychologists, or that the authors’ arguments don’t apply to all licensed psychotherapists. Gannon and Ward have painstakingly reinforced every paragraph with links to sources that will support professionals who recognize both the efficacious benefits and professional responsibilities to maintain EBP in institutionalized treatment. Clinical and administrative professionals who want to “put the psychology back” into institutional settings, will find a compelling case that evidence-based psychological practices do not have to take a backseat to institutional security. (JB)
We hope you enjoyed these snippets, that you will go read the full articles and that they will give you food for thought. These three articles indicate that there is still educational and supportive work to be done in respect to sexual offending with professionals (in all guises) across the Criminal Justice System, as well as outside of it.
Kieran McCartan, Ph.D, David Prescott, LICSW, & Jon Brandt, MSW LICSW.
Kieran McCartan, Ph.D, David Prescott, LICSW, & Jon Brandt, MSW LICSW.
Gannon, T. A., & Ward, T. (2014) Where has all the Psychology Gone? A Critical Review of Evidence-Based Psychological Practice in Correctional Settings, Aggression and Violent Behavior, 19, 435-446.
Hanson, K., Harris, A. J. R., Helmus, l., & Thornton, D. (published online).High-Risk Sex Offenders Might not be High Risk Forever. Journal of Interpersonal Violence.#
Lewis, T., Klettke, K., & Day, A. (2014). Sentencing in child sexual assault cases: factors influencing judicial decision-making. Journal of Sexual Aggression, 20, 281 – 295.
Smith, P., Goggin, C., & Gendreau, P. (2002). The effects of prison sentences and intermediate sanctions on recidivism: General effects and individual differences. (User Report 2002-01). Ottawa: Solicitor General Canada.