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Managing Unacceptable Risk: The Risk Assessment and Management of Child Sexual Offenders

NCJ Number
Steven Wright
Date Published
May 2003
10 pages
This literature review addresses the characteristics of child sexual offenders who reoffend, current risk assessment procedures for such offenders, the role of risk management strategies, and the inherent problem of a risk-based focus in the assessment and treatment of sex offenders.
The need for accurate risk assessment permeates the management of sex offenders in relation to sentencing, institutional placement, treatment planning, parole recommendations, and the restrictiveness of supervision conditions in the community. Although risk assessments that are 100-percent accurate over time do not and probably never will exist, scientific studies regarding the prediction of recidivism can assist in improving the accuracy of the decisions of those who manage the risk posed by sex offenders. Sexual interest in children as measured by phallometric assessment (a method used to detect likely sexual arousal) has been the single strongest predictor of risk. Related predictor variables have included phallometric assessment of sexual interest in boys as well as any deviant sexual preference. The risk for sexual reoffending tends to increase for those with any of the following characteristics: prior sexual offenses, the victimization of strangers, an extrafamilial victim, sexual offending at an early age, the selection of male victims, or engagement in diverse sexual crimes. Until recently there has been a general lack of empirical evidence that has investigated the role of dynamic factors (factors and characteristics amenable to change). The main focus in treatment programs are individually based factors that can be changed. Currently there are apparently three main approaches to risk assessment for sex offenders: professional judgment, actuarial prediction, and clinically adjusted actuarial prediction. This paper discusses each of these approaches. Regarding treatment evaluation studies, the cognitive-behavioral methods have a growing record of effectiveness with child sexual offenders. The paper concludes by advising that the failure to explicitly link constructive ways of living with risk assessment and management can make it difficult to motivate offenders and encourage them to invest in the change process. This involves focusing on the benefits of treatment for the offender's quality of life by building upon those dimensions of his personality and attitudes that are constructive for himself and others. Risk management approaches, on the other hand, tend to focus on the dangerous and dark side of the offender's behavior and personality.