Sex crimes are horrendous; there is no other way of putting it, whether it's adults committing crimes against children or adults attacking adults. As accounts of rape, incest and torture flicker across the daily media grid, two questions are almost always left unanswered: Why did the offender do this? Can he or she be treated?
It's very difficult to even get close to answering the 'why' part of this question, but many common myths don't ring true: Most sex offenders were not abused as children, and sex offenders don't commit sex crimes solely because they drink. Through extensive research, psychologists are now closer to understanding how sex offenders behave and may therefore also have a better shot at treating them.
"Treatment seems to work. You provide cognitive behavioral treatment to the offender and look at his thought patterns and emotional patterns, while you try to figure out which elements contribute to the target behavior," says Dr. Arthur Gordon, a psychologist who specializes in sex offender treatment at the Twin Rivers Corrections Center near Seattle -- the state's only treatment facility for male inmates. "This type of relapse prevention actually comes from the addiction literature, and what we do is try to identify a crime cycle, a sequential pattern of changes in the individual that will culminate in offense."
Everyone is cyclical, says Gordon, sex offender or not, and we are often much more aware of other people's cycles than our own. "You have a cycle. Your boss has a cycle. I'm sure you know when it's a good time to ask for a raise and when it's not. We all go from wonderful to everything sucks, and in between there is a pattern of deterioration that's pretty recognizable," he explains. "Offenders are not aware of these cycles. Most people don't hurt anyone when they are feeling down, but the offender needs to learn that this is the type of thinking that gets you into trouble and then learn the skills to get out of it."
Gordon and fellow researcher Richard Packard released a study of treatment of sex offenders in October, and their numbers speak clearly in favor of treatment. Among sex offenders who received treatment at Twin Rivers, only 2 percent reoffended, compared to 8 percent in the group that didn't receive any treatment. It surprises many that offenders are not sentenced to treatment while in prison -- it's voluntary. But a large number do sign up.
"About 45 percent of the committed sex offenders used to say, 'Yes, sign me up,' but over the last couple of months as many as 65 percent have said 'Yes,' " says Gordon.
As with many social problems in Washington state and across the nation, the success of the solution is often a function of funding, and it's no different in the case of treatment for sex offenders.
"The number of men who want treatment exceeds 1,000, and we have 200 treatment beds we can operate when we are fully staffed," says Gordon. "We haven't been fully staffed for two years, and can only operate about 150-160 beds given current staffing."
Most sex offenders need at least 12 months of treatment, preferably followed by treatment in the community once they are released, which they must pay for themselves.
"I think treatment works great," says Detective Jerry Keller, who monitors level two and three sex offenders for the Spokane Police Department. "But what if you don't have any money? Some of our offenders have good jobs, but others don't and what if you can't pay? I think the state may be coming up with funding for treatment after release, but I don't know for sure."
Gordon says the lack of funding is frustrating, and it's even more frustrating that some sex offenders who want it now must go without treatment, increasing their chances of a reoffense once they are out of jail.
"A year ago, we began screening all offenders in terms of their risk to reoffend, and in order to serve the public better, we decided that if we have to deny treatment, it had to be to the ones who were at lowest risk for reoffending," he explains. "We serve the public best by treating the high risk guys. But the low risk guys, their victims are often their kids, and the kids cooperate with prosecutors under promise of treatment for Dad, and then he doesn't get treatment. That's because of no fault of the offender, but that's got to be hard to understand as a victim."
A solid cash infusion would certainly help the program, says Gordon, but he doesn't see the money coming anywhere in the near future. In the past, legislatures have responded to public safety issues by beefing up law enforcement and creating stiffer sentences rather than funding treatment, which may have a better chance of reducing the number of sex crimes in the future.
"I guess the public has many priorities, and treating sex offenders is not at the high point of the list," he adds. "One of the easiest ways to get a reaction out of voters is to create some fear, and that doesn't serve us very well."