Sunday, 25 June 2017

Trouble With SOTP

The news that SOTP courses were being 'pulled', even with participants half way through, was mentioned on here some time ago. Now this from the Daily Mail:-

The scandal of the sex crime 'cure' hubs: How minister buried report into £100million prison programme to treat paedophiles and rapists that INCREASED reoffending rates

The Government is hiding a devastating report that shows rehabilitation courses taken by thousands of jailed rapists and paedophiles make them more dangerous once they are released. According to the study, prisoners who take the courses are at least 25 per cent more likely to be convicted of further sex crimes than those who do not, suggesting that the sessions may have created hundreds of extra victims.

The controversial Sex Offender Treatment Programme (SOTP), a six-month psychological group-therapy course, is believed to have cost taxpayers well over £100 million since it was set up in 1991. Before the report was compiled, about 1,000 prisoners had been taking the 'core' programme at a cost of about £7 million a year, many at eight sex offender treatment 'hubs' – specialist jails where thousands of such criminals are concentrated.

The worst offenders went on to an 'extended' course, which was also found to make them more dangerous. An investigation by this newspaper has revealed:
  • The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) was initially reluctant to accept the bombshell findings, but after they were independently endorsed, it abruptly axed both programmes – but kept the decision secret;
  • Experts had for years been warning that the programmes were flawed, and there was no good evidence that they cut reoffending;
  • Paedophiles convicted of physically attacking children are especially likely to offend again after taking the SOTP;
  • The decision to keep the report secret was taken by former Justice Secretary Liz Truss, who rejected advice from officials.
There have been numerous documented cases of criminals who underwent the SOTP and committed brutal crimes on their release.

One of the worst was Clive Sharp, who took the course after being convicted and jailed three times for sexual attacks over a 30-year period, starting when he raped an underage girl when he was 17. He told his SOTP facilitator in the 1990s that he fantasised about tying up a woman, then raping and murdering her. In October 2012, after his last release, he fulfilled it when he invaded the North Wales home of vet Catherine Gowing, sexually tortured her, then killed and dismembered her. He is now serving life with a minimum 37-year term.

Another was Tony Rice, who raped, strangled and fatally stabbed Naomi Bryant in Winchester in 2005, just nine months after being released on licence from a life sentence imposed for three rapes and sexual assaults. He won his freedom after taking the SOTP. The coroner at Naomi's 2011 inquest said the case was 'a wake-up call for those involved in offender management'. Rice is again serving life.

Recent cases have involved paedophiles such as former social worker John Hoar, who was jailed for three years and eight months at York Crown Court in February for distributing images of children – some as young as five – being raped and tortured. He took the SOTP during a previous sentence for possessing child pornography.

Last month, Michael Wood, from Welwyn Garden City, was jailed for six-and-a-half years for having sex with an underage teenager and possessing child pornography. He had three previous convictions for paedophile activity, and after the last, for a sexual attack on an underage girl in 1997, he had passed the SOTP.

High-profile prisoners who have taken the SOTP reportedly include former broadcaster Stuart Hall, who in 2013 pleaded guilty to assaulting 13 girls, the youngest just aged nine.

Successive governments have made bold claims for the SOTP's success in curbing reoffending. As recently as April – after the damning report was delivered, and the programmes were secretly axed – the MoJ website claimed they had 'demonstrated that they are based on sound evidence on what techniques and interventions help offenders to change', and there was 'international evidence' that they reduced reoffending.

However, some experts have disputed such claims for many years. One was William Marshall, whose own, very different sex offender rehabilitation programmes in Canada have been shown to achieve huge cuts in reoffending rates.

Until 2004, Dr Marshall was employed as an external consultant to SOTPs in Britain. But exasperated by what he saw as the programme's shortcomings and the Government's failure to remedy them, he resigned. 'There were a lot of problems with SOTP and I didn't want to be identified with a programme I didn't agree with,' he said. 'They weren't adapting the course in line with developing knowledge, and many of those delivering the programme were not qualified.'

The worst problem was that the numbers being enrolled on the courses were 'far too ambitious', leading to a shortage of qualified therapists. In fact, most SOTP facilitators were chaplains, ordinary prison officers and other 'para-professionals'.

According to Dr Marshall, their lack of training meant that the facilitators were forced to stick rigidly to 'scripts' drawn from a thick SOTP manual. He said: 'Manuals take the therapist out of the loop. For sex offender treatment to succeed, you have to be flexible enough to keep adapting to every individual. A revamp is long overdue.'

Dr Marshall said he was 'amazed' that the new report was being kept secret, adding: 'Why waste time doing research if you're not going to publish it?'

Another prominent sceptic was David Ho, a forensic psychiatrist who has treated some of the country's most disturbed offenders at Broadmoor, and is now research chief at a secure unit in Essex. He said: 'I'm not surprised by the new evaluation. Both the academic community and the public have the right to see the full results.' Previous studies claiming SOTPs worked were fundamentally flawed, he said – as he had been arguing for years.

Questioned repeatedly by this newspaper, the MoJ refused to release the full data behind the secret report's headline results. But multiple prison service sources have told us that the study, based on many hundreds of offenders who went through the SOTP between 2002 and 2012, found reoffending rates 25 per cent higher than a comparison group who did not take the courses.

Overall, the MoJ says 13.2 per cent of sex offenders will be convicted of another sex crime within a year of the end of a sentence. The MoJ was forced to accept the results when they were independently endorsed in a review by Professor Dietrich Lösel, emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge Institute of Criminology.

Prof Lösel confirmed he had endorsed the report, but said he was prohibited from speaking about it until it had been published 'but I don't know when this will happen'.

Once it became clear that the SOTP made prisoners more dangerous, the pressure to axe the programme became irresistible. As one MoJ insider put it: 'If this was a medical trial of a new drug, you would stop the trial immediately.' But the decision not to publish the report means prison staff and prisoners have been left in limbo.

'All we know is the course has been stopped,' one senior officer said. 'We have not been told why.' Worst affected are some of the thousands of prisoners serving indefinite sentences for public protection, who had been waiting for a place on the courses before they could be considered for release. New courses to replace the SOTP are in the pipeline. But they remain untried and untested, and it is unclear when they will be widely available.

Nick Hardwick, chairman of the Parole Board, last night called on the MoJ to publish the report. 'The test when we consider an application for parole is whether we are satisfied that a prisoner's risk of reoffending has been reduced, and whether they are safe to release,' he said. 'People need to understand what works and what doesn't.'

An MoJ spokesman said: 'Public protection is our top priority, and we keep treatment programmes under constant review to reduce reoffending and prevent further victims. We are now in the process of rolling out new programmes and all offenders have either already started their new course, or are being assessed for targeted support.'


  1. Always maintained that it is ridiculous to force people to do OB course especially as studies have repeatedly shown that they don't work. Also the reliance on them by probation and HMP as a way of reducing risk of reoffending is ridiculous. You need individualised programmes tailored to the individual's circumstances rather than a one size fits all thing that has been badly designed. Yes it will cost more to start with but it would save money in the ,long term both socially and financially

  2. I've always thought that sitting groups of sex offenders together to discuss their offences was wrong.

    Erm.. why is probation still running SOTP in the community?

  3. I've always felt that Probation Officers and managers running SOTP programmes believed they were better than everyone else working in probation and programme teams. We all knew they weren't experts at anything more than reading from a manual. After this super sized wedgie from the MoJ they'll have to stop strutting around.

  4. 09:48 I totally agree with you - like you in my experience they behaved like they were trained psychologists with a holier than thou attitude - unfortunately there is still a lot of that around - CGM CRC are making all CM's / PSO's complete core skills training so everyone whether skilled or experienced will run programs

  5. I have always failed to understand how going on this course can undo all the motivations for this type of offending. Box ticking at its best/worst.

  6. I would forward the argument that offending behaviour programmes as a whole have no real impact on reoffending. I also think that offending behaviour programmes give a very unreliable assessment of risk.
    Indeed, the only risk that can really be said to be reduced by offending behaviour programmes, is the reduction of negative fallout to the justice system if an individual goes on to reoffend.
    Programmes and courses within the CJS is just another form of labeling, defining the individual by the offence committed.
    Commit X offence and you do courses a, b and c. Commit Y offence and your route through are a, c, and do.
    The primary focus is on getting the individual through the programme or course to comply with targets and sentence planning, the impact of the course on the individual is of lesser concern.
    It's a focus on quantative data, because that ticks boxes far more easily then the quantative kind of information that it should be about.
    There are of course people that can benefit from offending behaviour programmes, but there really just a waste of funding and time when they're used as a mechanism or stepping stones to plot pathways through the CJS.


    1. This is why the reoffending rate is so high. You're never going to get someone to stop offending if you don't a) find out why they do what they do and b) what they think would stop them and then work with them to put that in place. The only way you'll do this is through long term individualised therapy that the offender is a willing participant in.

    2. Risk of reoffending is based on a crude calculation of statistics, and far from accurate. Risk of harm is decided on the assessor throwing a mental dart at a piece of paper with "low, medium, high, very high" scribbled on it. A CBT programme is the 'better than doing nothing' method of reducing the risks of reoffending and harm which are usually inaccurately presented in the first place!

  7. Programmes alone will never stop reoffending, the work of the supervising PO/PSO in supporting and applying learning both before, during and after programme attendance is crucial. Assessment of how learning is applied to everyday life is crucial.

    I have worked with individuals who followed OB programmes in custody and failed to apply new skills in the community. Although passing the Programme in custody, their skills practice happened in an artificial custodial environment. When faced with real life situations which trigger unresolved emotional issues in the community, many buckle under the strain

    1. The fact they "buckle" means the programmes are useless. And stop fooling yourself thinking CBT programmes and "supervision" is what makes people stop offending.

    2. Please note the report did not state that SOTP in themselves are problematic just that the one NOMS chose to deliver was . Anyone whose knows about this could see it then as they chose not to follow through on some of the more effective programs that were around both in the UK ( Challenge program for example ) and world ( As highlighted in the report CSC programs ) that have been academically proven to have some benefit. As these programs are delivered in partnership with health agencies it perhaps no surprise the government were not interested

  8. Accredited Offending Behaviour Programmes - a licence for influential, academic bullies to appeal to NOMS with myths of magic bullets & money-making collaborations selling rigid programmes with fly-by-wire manuals. This sounded the death knell for innovative probation groupwork, allowed for the introduction of central control via the wafer-thin veneer of accreditation & enriched a few bank accounts. Tick some boxes, job done!

    Same old story - monetise everything for profit aka "Know The Price of Everything, Know The Value of Nothing"

  9. I think the problem lies in group work for these offenders. Most have had some form of trauma and need a more therapeutic approach which can only be facilitated in a safe environment, meaning NOT in a group of people with dubious motivations or commitment. If I were in their shoes, I would be reluctant to go into a group and would not feel comfortable once in there.

    That said, I also wonder what these new Horizon programmes are about. They put sex offenders into a group but stop short of discussing offending. In my experience, this group of people want to talk about their offences, but just in a safe environment.

  10. Amazed to read some of these reactions to a Daily Fail article. A source so unreliable that Wikipedia recommend it should never be cited as it is 'generally unreliable'. It doesn't even say that offending behaviour programmes (with sex offenders or otherwise) don't work! It says that this *particular* programme has not moved with the evidence, has stuck with the rigid script approach and used poorly trained staff. Let’s also remember that these were prison based; never the best place to develop and practice real-world skills.

    CBT is the single best evidenced approach to modifying thinking and behaviour in the world: full stop. Group work interventions were the cornerstone of the ‘what works’ meta-analyses in the 80s/90s which pretty much salvaged the whole notion of working with offenders in the UK. Is it a magic bullet? No. Is it always used well? No. That it is poorly used by a profoundly dysfunctional prison/probation system in England should a surprise not be. Glad to say Scotland ditched SOTP years ago and is working with a far more therapeutic holistic, CBT/GLM based approach.

    I absolutely believe that group work works, when done well.

  11. i'm so fed up. i work with men with sexual convictions. i am a programme facilitator. why not publish the report so i can learn from it and do a better job? where is the moral authority in hiding learning points due to embarrassment? disgusting.

  12. As the mum of a teenage boy whose father ( ex partner) last year was convicted of possessing indecent images of toddlers ( many A category) - and photographing them naked on beaches and storing manipulated images... I would like to say that the justice system has left me speechless as has the lack of understanding and tailored support available for children in my son's position
    1. I only knew what offences he actually committed after a Police officer insisted I attend court. My ex lied to me and my son for a year ( said he slipped once looking at adult porn and saw images of 17 year olds) and Police / Social Workers wouldn't tell me what he was charged with as we were not married and my son was male so not at risk.
    2.The judge said his dad hadn't hurt anyone so given 3 year SHPO
    3. His barrister emphasised he could pay the court fee immediately which pleased the judge and submitted a letter from his new partner saying she would support him - even though he had not told her family or teenage children of his charges
    4.He has received 1:1 sessions with his Probation Officer whilst waiting for the New Horizons course and made such good progress his risk has been reduced from high to low. My ex says the plan is to go back to court and get his 5 years on SOR quashed...
    5. My son has not had any such tailored support nor understanding available to him. At present here is a huge gap between Probation Officers / Women's Centers who understand the minds of controlling men and paedophiles and children's social workers, teachers and Camhs workers who do not.
    I was told to let my son see his Dad and stay with him as ' it was ok'
    6. The impact on my son ( and subsequently me) has been immense - mentally, physically, emotionally and practically - yet my ex appears to have no worries and enjoying life...holidays, weddings, dinner parties, trips away, still crticising me to my son, undermining my parenting choices and does not appear to have reflected on what he is and what he has done....or thought about his son.
    7. Can you offer any hope that the New Horizons programme will change his self confident mindset to more self aware?

    I remain cynical that it is just new box ticking. My ex is a highly academically intelligent man and frankly could pass any ' test' with flying colours.

    He will be great for Probation's statistics but I am very concerned he won't be for my son. Or will this new course force him to reflect on the nature and impact of his crimes?

    Having a father who is a Paedophile is devastating on all levels. This needs to be recognised and responded too by Care Services or Camhs and linked to Probation as part of the programme.

  13. I was one of the last prisoners on SOTP. My subjective perception of it is that it was simply a box ticking exercise that tried to drill stock phrases into the recipients to then be repeated back to probation officers to demonstrate rehabilitation. Anyone who struggles to play along with the farce is set up to fail.

    Even after release on licence, I'm still being judged and "rehabilitated" based on this programme. I went into prison convinced I would never repeat the same offences again, I came out doubting the system and myself, something that has only got worse in dealing with the probation service since release. Luckily I have a very supportive family who have helped keep me on track but my mental health has rarely been so bad, something that seems lost on the probation service.