Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Child Sex Offenders

How to Deal with a Sex Offender

John Evander Couey
John Evander Couey

Given how difficult it is to "cure" a sex offender, and knowing that they're not generally locked up for life, many communities have grown concerned about what to do. Even as John Evander Couey was convicted of the murder of nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford in Florida, Ohio considered making registered sex offenders put pink license plates on their cars to signal that they're in the area. However, their family members who also use the cars vehemently objected. New York announced intentions of locking sexual predators up in psychiatric facilities once their prison terms ended, if the court believed they remained a threat. Governor Pataki had tried preventing them from being released, but a court struck that down as unconstitutional. The new "civil confinement," based on the assessment of mental health experts, is another approach. If successful, the state will create an Office of Sex Offender Management.

Scientific American Mind published an article on "Abnormal Attraction," i.e., pedophilia, even as the New York Times offered a three-part series about the issue of sexual offenders (only some of whom are pedophiles). One article featured a description about a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy used in California, which some have touted as the only way to change a sex offender. Many contest its alleged benefits.

The plan is complex: it involves the offender in devising a detailed program to which he will be accountable when on his own in the community: it includes a strategy for avoiding children and dealing with substance abuse, avoiding the Internet, and punishing himself for deviant thoughts. This program is called "relapse prevention," according to the article, but apparently there's little evidence that it actually works. In fact, no plan has been satisfactory for this purpose, and a sixteen-year study found that offenders who'd had this treatment were slightly more likely to re-offend again.

While offenders are taught in relapse prevention programs that they will have a daily struggle with their dysfunction, they have a tough time getting at the emotional issues, such as distorted self-esteem, that underlie their habitual offending. Some also learn how to simply deceive their therapists so they can gain freedom. Deception detection is a difficult skill, with no formula for success, so offenders with no intention of stopping their criminal behavior may teach one another how to work the system.

Perhaps the new mind-reading devices currently being tested in Germany will one day assist with the problem. By some accounts, at this time they reveal a person's intent with about 71% accuracy. In any event, most offenders do level out and even stop by the time they reach their seventies. Clearly, satisfactory solutions to the problem have yet to be found.

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