'We must not turn our faces away from the bad'

Dee Anand, Chair of the British Psychological Society's Division of Forensic Psychology, responds regarding a recent Ministry of Justice review of the Sex Offender Treatment Programme.

It is troubling to see any research withheld and our profession would support open publication and transparency – academic, ethical and professional debate about issues raised through research. The recent stories about the Ministry of Justice Impact Evaluation of the Sex Offender Treatment Programme (SOTP) paper indicating an increase in risk of offending for offenders who have completed the programme must be viewed with this spirit of openness and discussion of the wider context.

It should be noted that forensic psychologists work in an extremely challenging field, with an extremely challenging client group, and are subject to the socio-political influences and constraints of austerity and central governmental influence. It is therefore of concern to many in our profession that the Ministry of Justice elected not to share the findings of this research with members of our professional body as the impact of such findings directly impact our ability to carry out our duties across the judicial process. The headline grabbing approach that results from this is not necessarily representative of the nuanced findings of the paper itself. The research makes clear that there is the possibility of a variety of other influences which may be unobserved which has led to the results found. It also criticises the manualised, group based directive approach to treatment and suggests that the lack of individual focus may be an explanation for the findings.

This is something many of us in the profession have been arguing for some time. Research and interventions designed with good intent and a sound evidence base (good science!) can very quickly lead to poor implementation, poor management and poor delivery (bad science!) which results in poor outcomes. The constraints on forensic psychology funding for this most ‘unsexy’ field of work – after all who wants to work with those who are often presented as sexual deviants, evil, rotten and who should be locked up with the key dispensed with somewhere unsanitary, particularly when it seems that whatever you do isn’t going to work!? - can be said to be contributory to the findings of the research

In fact, the paper suggests a move away from group work and towards individual understanding and therapy may offer more encouraging results. To this end, I call for increased funding to support more qualified psychologists working in this specialised and highly challenging field. And I call on all of us, as a society, to reflect on our narrative and move away from an attitude of expelling such individuals from our ‘normal’ domain of operation so we can label them ‘mad or bad'. When we think of such offenders in that way it means we do not take responsibility, we can defend our argument that we should not care or try to understand why people do such things. And it means we can never evolve our understanding of how we can help.

If, however, we take responsibility as a society and accept that these offenders have lived, functioned, behaved and misbehaved within our society – the one to which we all contribute – then we must accept that we all have a responsibility for the good and the bad. We must not turn our faces away from the bad and pretend that only the good exists. We must first accept that such things have happened on our watch and in our midst. We must encourage openness and transparency and not hide behind government embargoes or pejorative reporting but must seek to understand the nuances of research, challenge our thinking and support resources being targeted to those in such challenging professions who are seeking to understand, seeking to help and seeking to change.

Churchill commented that we should judge a society by the way it treats its criminals. In my view we must devote more resources to rehabilitation than to punishment. We must believe in change, support change and encourage transparency rather than face the consequences of austerity – poorly trained, non-professional facilitators of programmes who have relied on a manualised, groupwork approach because the qualified psychologists have not been suitably supported. And we must read such research carefully, with an open mind in a public domain. The consequences of not doing so could be dire.

Dee Anand 

Chair of the British Psychological Society's Division of Forensic Psychology

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber