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We need to talk about sex

Large numbers of prisoners in limbo waiting for ‘SOTP mess’ to be cleared up

Anyone who has served a prison sentence for a sexual offence over the last 25 years will have heard of the SOTP. Thousands of prisoners have completed at least one version of the programme. Many will have served much longer periods in custody because they have been told that they “need to do the SOTP”. Probation officers, Parole Board members and prison officers have consistently told prisoners that they must do the SOTP to reduce their risk of re-offending. It also appears that the SOTP was one of the programmes which the Ministry of Justice (during the Grayling years) tried to sell to foreign jurisdictions.

It is now clear that the claims which have been made for the SOTP have been wildly misleading. The headline from the research is shocking. The group who took part in the treatment programme re-offended more than the group convicted of similar offences who had not taken part. How long the Ministry of Justice has known this has not been disclosed. It has been suggested that efforts were made to hide the research findings. If that is true, there really should be an investigation to provide accountability for decisions which were made.

Sexual offending arouses very strong feelings and can cause dreadful harm. What we do as a society to reduce that harm should be the subject of informed debate. A civilised society needs civilised, intelligent solutions to difficult problems. It is possible to condemn behaviour and still try to understand it. It is also possible to treat people with respect and dignity even though they may have done appalling things. We need to know as much as possible about why people behave in this way and we need to understand what works to reduce the likelihood that they will do so again.

One of the key problems with the approach which has been taken to sexual, as well as other types of offending, is that it often fails to take proper account of the individual. What someone ‘needs’ cannot really be answered without knowing who that person is, why they behave as they do and what might change things for them. Some people do not benefit from group work. If we are serious about rehabilitation and stopping re-offending, we might have to accept the cost of providing skilled one-to-one work when it is needed. We might have to focus more on what we can do to ‘manage’ rather than eradicate risk. Good interventions are collaborative and encourage people to be properly invested in and motivated to manage their own risk.

There are still big holes in the plans which HMPPG (formerly NOMS) has for people convicted of sexual offences. There are a large number of prisoners who are in limbo waiting for the SOTP mess to be cleared up. The new programmes, Kaizen and Horizon, are untested and there are not yet sufficient places to meet the likely demand. There may be people who would benefit from these programmes. It will be tempting for some to resist new programmes on the basis that there is little evidence that they will work. They will probably need to have an alternative. It is to be hoped that the opportunity is seized to really think about and discuss what helps people to desist from serious offending. Sentence planning must be designed to support that.

Those who have lost years waiting to do the SOTP are entitled to wonder whether the Ministry of Justice will offer them any form of redress. It is likely that they would need to show that there was a very clear causal link between their continued detention and the wait for the SOTP. Any potential claims are likely to be very much depend on the facts of the individual case.

A leaflet hastily prepared by the Ministry of Justice seeks to reassure people who have done the Core or Extended SOTP that they did not waste their time. The leaflet asserts that programmes teach skills or tools which are important to living a crime free life. It does not say that there are other things which might very well contribute to the same goals.

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