Taking the research and its limitations into account, it is still likely that the public’s belief that very high recidivism rates are well documented is incorrect, although this verdict may change in the future.
If recidivism is not as common as people generally believe, how do their impressions of treatment’s failure or success hold up? Levenson and her colleagues also found that a whopping 50 percent of the public believes that treatment for sex offenders is ineffective and will not prevent them from relapsing. Yet some studies have shown that treatment can significantly reduce recidivism for both sex and nonsexual crimes. Hanson and his colleagues conducted a meta-analysis on treatment and found that 17 percent of untreated subjects reoffended, whereas 10 percent of treated subjects did so. When recidivism rates for sex and nonsexual violent crimes were combined, 51 percent of untreated and 32 percent of treated subjects reoffended.
The advantage for treatment over nontreatment does not appear to be that large; because meta-analyses group studies together, they may mask the fact that some of them found fairly large effects of treatment and others found smaller or no effects. Results of this meta-analysis also suggest that we might be making progress. More recent studies show significantly larger treatment benefits than do the older studies.
Most approaches employ a number of treatments. The majority include two components: cognitive-behavior therapy, which aims to change sexually deviant thoughts, behaviors and arousal patterns, and relapse prevention, which aims to teach sex offenders how to anticipate and cope with problems (such as feelings of anger or loneliness) that can lead to reoffending.
Although the development of treatments for sex offenders is still in its infancy, studies show that therapy can make a difference. Sex offenders are not all fated to repeat their horrible crimes, and we—through the actions of the general public, policy leaders and legislators—can encourage hope by supporting further research on such therapies.