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Why Call Someone by What We Don’t Want Them to Be? The Ethics of Labelling in Forensic/Correctional Psychology



Labelling a person by their past behaviour or a criminal conviction is commonplace throughout forensic and correctional psychology. Labels including “offender” and “sex offender” infiltrate academic writing and conference presentations, names of professional organizations and treatment programmes and, at times, traverse therapeutic work. That such labels are frequently used and rarely advocated against suggests that helping professionals either (i) don’t recognize labelling as an ethical issue, or (ii) don’t consider it their role to challenge. The current paper aims to encourage critical reflection on the use of labels in forensic and correctional psychology. Key concerns are illustrated through a focus on labels commonly assigned to individuals who have sexually abused, where labelling is especially prolific. The scope of labelling is reviewed, and implications for rehabilitation and reintegration discussed. Next, an analysis of the ethics of labelling individuals on the basis of criminal convictions, past behaviour or psychological phenomena is presented. It is argued that the use of such labels contradict core ethical principles including beneficence and nonmaleficence, respect for the dignity of all persons, and responsibilities to society. A de-labelling movement for forensic/correctional psychology and related fields is proposed.
Running Head: The Ethics of Labelling
Why Call Someone by What We Don’t Want Them to Be? The Ethics of Labelling in
Forensic/Correctional Psychology
Gwenda M. Willis
The University of Auckland
Author Note
Gwenda M. Willis, School of Psychology, University of Auckland.
Thank you to Professor Tony Ward for his helpful comments on earlier drafts of this
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Gwenda M. Willis,
School of Psychology, The University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland 1142, New
Word count (excluding Abstract and References): 5953
The Ethics of Labelling
Why Call Someone by What We Don’t Want Them to Be? The Ethics of Labelling in
Forensic/Correctional Psychology
Labelling a person by their past behaviour or a criminal conviction is commonplace
throughout forensic and correctional psychology. Labels including “offender” and “sex
offender” infiltrate academic writing and conference presentations, names of professional
organizations and treatment programmes and, at times, traverse therapeutic work. That such
labels are frequently used and rarely advocated against suggests that helping professionals
either (i) don’t recognize labelling as an ethical issue, or (ii) don’t consider it their role to
challenge. The current paper aims to encourage critical reflection on the use of labels in
forensic and correctional psychology. Key concerns are illustrated through a focus on labels
commonly assigned to individuals who have sexually abused, where labelling is especially
prolific. The scope of labelling is reviewed, and implications for rehabilitation and
reintegration discussed. Next, an analysis of the ethics of labelling individuals on the basis of
criminal convictions, past behaviour or psychological phenomena is presented. It is argued
that the use of such labels contradict core ethical principles including beneficence and
nonmaleficence, respect for the dignity of all persons, and responsibilities to society. A de-
labelling movement for forensic/correctional psychology and related fields is proposed.
Keywords: labelling theory, Pygmalion effect, professional ethics, desistance, rehabilitation
The Ethics of Labelling
Used to classify a person or object using a word or short phrase, labels are
commonplace in everyday communication. From describing one’s family role or occupation,
to dietary preferences, ethnic identity, religious beliefs and sexual orientation, labels can aide
communication by conveying meaning without superfluous words. Labels are often used to
express defining features of how someone sees themselves (e.g., as a “father”, “vegetarian,”
“American” or “Christian”) and what they do (e.g., a “student”, “mechanic” or “football
player”). However, while labels can serve an adaptive function in everyday communication,
these communication shortcuts can also cause harm. As highlighted in the Publication
Manual of the American Psychological Association, many labels can be perceived as
pejorative and stigmatising (American Psychological Association, 2010b). Examples include
“mental retard” or “schizophrenic to refer to someone with an intellectual disability or
schizophrenia, respectively. Such labels might be perceived as offensive and reducing the
labelled person to the label assigned, irrespective of the extent to which the label accurately
describes characteristics of the person. For these reasons, a movement towards person-first
language that separates a person from a condition or disorder gained momentum in the 1990s
(American Psychological Association, 1992, 1994). Person-first language is now
commonplace across psychological and educational literature, with notable exceptions. One
such exception and the focus of the current paper is on labels commonly assigned to the
people at the centre of theory, research and practice in forensic/correctional psychology and
related fields. Beyond the stigma, disempowerment and distress that labels such as
“offender” and “sex offender” may evoke, these labels also communicate that individuals
with similar criminal convictions represent homogenous groups. There is a risk that
important messages about the heterogeneity of individuals who have offended are lost, and
opportunities for rehabilitation, reintegration and desistance compromised. The current paper
The Ethics of Labelling
aims to prompt critical reflection and academic discussion surrounding ethical issues inherent
in labelling a person based on a past conviction or criminal propensity.
Concern about labelling persons who have engaged in criminal behaviour is not new.
In 1938, Frank Tannenbaum remarked in his book Crime and the community that by
assigning someone a label, there’s every chance “the person becomes the thing he [or she] is
described as being (Tannenbaum, 1938, p. 20). Since then, empirical research has
accumulated showing that formal labelling of persons who have engaged in delinquent or
criminal behaviour increases risk for future delinquency or crime, for example through
identity changes, blocked opportunities and increased association with deviant peers (e.g.,
Bernburg & Krohn, 2003; Bernburg, Krohn, & Rivera, 2006; Chiricos, Barrick, Bales, &
Bontrager, 2007; Restivo & Lanier, 2015; Wiley & Esbensen, 2016). Yet to this day, we
continue to refer to men and women in the criminal justice system by the very behaviour we
do not want them repeating. Moreover, many labels used in correctional psychology and
criminology are normative categories (see Ward & Heffernan, in press); as such they have
little scientific validity and may serve to proliferate misperceptions about persons who have
offended. Such labels include “offender”, “sex offender,” “fire setterand “murderer. They
are based on a past conviction(s) and communicate little about the person or their propensity
for future offending, which is especially problematic in the case of sexual offending given the
relatively low base rates of sexual recidivism (estimated at 24% over a 15 year follow-up; A.
J. R. Harris & Hanson, 2004). By contrast, other commonly used labels in forensic
psychology reflect scientifically valid constructs associated with psychological phenomena
(e.g., “psychopath”, paedophile”) and may be more indicative of future propensities.
Notwithstanding their scientific validity; however, these labels are laden with negative
connotations (Imhoff, 2015) and therefore risk stigmatising the individuals to whom theyare
The Ethics of Labelling
The use of stigmatising and pejorative labels in correctional/forensic psychology is
especially evident in reference to persons who have sexually offended. These individuals are
often collectively referred to as “sex offenders” or differentiated on the basis of perpetrator,
victim, or crime characteristics and/or legal classifications (e.g., “juvenile sex offender”,
“child molester”, “rapist”, “exhibitionist”, “sexually violent predator”). Using labels
commonly assigned to persons who have sexually abused to illustrate key concerns, this
article begins by reviewing the scope of labelling and implications for rehabilitation and
reintegration. Next, this article evaluates the use of labels against psychologists’ ethical
obligations to clients and communities. Finally, some ways forward in the absence of labels
to which forensic/correctional psychology and related fields have become accustomed are
The Scope of Labelling and Implications for Rehabilitation and Reintegration
If community members or media outlets have not beat the criminal justice system to
it, labels are typically assigned upon conviction and sentencing for a sexual offence. Many
countries require individuals convicted of a sexual offence to register their personal details
(including a photograph, home address, identifying information and workplace) on an
electronic register, commonly referred to as a “sex offender
register.” Such registers are
accessible to law enforcement and child protection agencies and in some countries, the
general public. Registrants are required to notify authorities as personal details change, and
effectively carry the “registered sex offender” label with them for many years or life. In the
US, where federal legislation requires each state to maintain a publically accessible online
register, at least two thirds of registrants are subject to registration requirements for 25 years
or life (Ackerman, Harris, Levenson, & Zgoba, 2011). Notwithstanding the well-documented
Labels will not be used by the author unless referring to current usage, which will be indicated by quotation
marks or italics
The Ethics of Labelling
and potentially risk-enhancing reintegration obstacles that many registrants face such as
housing and employment instability (Levenson & Cotter, 2005; Levenson, D'Amora, & Hern,
2007; Mercado, Alvarez, & Levenson, 2008; Sample & Streveler, 2003; Tewksbury, 2004,
2005; Tewksbury & Lees, 2006; Zevitz & Farkas, 2000), labelling someone a “registered sex
offendercontradicts accumulating research on the role of pro-social identity changes or
‘cognitive transformations’ in the process of desistance from crime (Giordano, Cernkovich,
& Rudolph, 2002; D. A. Harris, 2014a, 2014b; Maruna, 2001). Desistance refers to the
process of ceasing criminal behaviour after repeated, habitual or career-like engagement in
crime (Farrall, 2010; Laws & Ward, 2011; Maruna, 2001). Indeed, Maruna, LeBel, Mitchell
and Naples (2004) and Maruna and LeBel (2010) have argued that labelling theory may be a
neglected factor in understanding desistance. They suggested that desistance might be
facilitated when behaviour change is recognized by others and reflected back to the desisting
person in a de-labelling process. Given that registers reinforce labels and create obstacles to
community reintegration, it is unsurprising that they have largely failed to impact rates of
sexual recidivism (Levenson, 2016b; 2016c; see also Bierie, 2015).
Labelling in Treatment Settings
Irrespective of registration status, many individuals convicted of sexual offences are
required to attend sexual offence-specific treatment programmes. Around the world, the very
programmes that aim to help clients improve their lives and ultimately prevent future
offending often reinforce labelling in their names (e.g., Corrections Victoria Sex Offender
Programs, Australia; Minnesota Sex Offender Program, US). The acronyms SOTP (Sex
Offender Treatment Program) and SOP (Sex Offender Program) are especially prolific
(e.g., Washington State SOTP, US; National Offender Management Service SOTP, UK). In
the author’s opinion, there is a risk that labelling treatment participants in the names of
treatment programmes may communicate to clients that helping professionals view them as
The Ethics of Labelling
society does: a homogenous group, highly likely to reoffend and not welcome in the general
community (e.g., Willis, Malinen, & Johnston, 2013). If labelling was confined to
programme names, clients might reasonably conclude that programme names reflect the legal
or political context in which they operate, as opposed to the views of helping professionals.
However, labelling extends beyond programme names. Prior to commencing a treatment
programme, clients are typically asked to sign a consent form confirming that they have
understood the programme’s purpose and what is expected of them, as well as limits of
confidentiality and any other relevant information. At times, the author has observed
labelling seeping into the process of obtaining informed consent, with the word “offender”
inscribed on consent forms to indicate where the client should sign. Some programmes
additionally require clients to sign a sex offender treatment contractoutlining programme
rules and expectations of clients (Willis, Ward, & Levenson, 2014). In doing so, clients are
effectively forced to succumb to the “sex offender” label and treatment starts not as a
collaborative process capable of fostering pro-social identity change, but with assignment to a
highly stigmatized group.
It is possible that the negative consequences of labelling might be offset by the
therapeutic relationship that develops between the client and therapist. Indeed, general
psychotherapy research (see Wampold & Imel, 2015) and the sexual offending treatment
literature specifically (e.g., Marshall et al., 2003; Marshall et al., 2002) highlight the
importance of the therapeutic relationship on treatment outcome. When therapists
demonstrate genuineness, warmth and nonjudgmental attitudes in their interactions with
clients, they communicate respect. When therapists display empathy and unconditional
positive regard, they communicate that clients are worthy; moreover, they communicate an
awareness that people who have harmed have often themselves been harmed, and left with
maladaptive coping skills as adults through no fault of their own (e.g., Levenson, 2016a;
The Ethics of Labelling
Levenson, Willis, & Prescott, 2015, 2016; Reavis, Looman, Franco, & Rojas, 2013; Willis &
Levenson, 2016). When therapists reinforce client strengths and praise accomplishments,
they communicate belief in clients’ capacities to live a life inconsistent with the labels they
may have been assigned. Over time, consistent displays of warmth, genuineness, empathy
and praise might lead to clients internalizing belief in their own self-worth and capacity for a
better life. In other words, the therapeutic relationship may moderate or buffer negative
outcomes associated with labelling by the criminal justice system by inducing a positive
Pygmalion effect. The Pygmalion effect refers to the power of supervisory expectations on
subordinate performance, and has been studied extensively in education settings (Rosenthal,
2002, 2003). Numerous studies have found that teacher expectations of students influence
student achievement: high expectations lead to higher achievement and low expectations lead
to lower achievement, with stigmatised groups particularly sensitive to expectancy effects
(e.g., Friedrich, Flunger, Nagengast, Jonkmann, & Trautwein, 2015; Jussim & Harber, 2005;
Madon, Jussim, & Eccles, 1997; Rosenthal, 2002). Individuals who have sexually offended
are arguably one of the most stigmatised groups in society (Craig, 2005; Hogue, 1993;
Weekes, Pelletier, & Beaudette, 1995; Willis, Levenson, & Ward, 2010), thus Pygmalion
effects may be particularly pronounced. While not studied explicitly in correctional
psychology, extrapolating findings from education research would suggest that when
therapists, probation officers and professionals believe that men and women with previous
sex crime convictions are worthy and capable of living a law-abiding and productive life, the
men and women too might internalise those beliefs and live their lives accordingly. In other
words, by recognising the humanity of individuals who have harmed and their prosocial goals
and life aspirations, helping professionals can offer clients hope for a future they label and
define. Such an approach is consistent with the Good Lives Model of rehabilitation, where
the client’s conceptualisation of a ‘good life’ guides correctional treatment and supervision
The Ethics of Labelling
(Ward & Stewart, 2003; Willis, Yates, Gannon, & Ward, 2013). On the other hand, a narrow
focus in treatment and supervision on an individual’s offending might reinforce effects of
labelling. To illustrate, sexual offence disclosure exercises are often a requirement for
programme completion (McGrath, Cumming, Burchard, Zeoli, & Ellerby, 2010). At best,
such exercises might encourage clients to acknowledge their past behaviour as well as any
ongoing difficulties that might put them at risk of reoffending (e.g., continued deviant sexual
interest in children). At worst, such exercises might force clients to identify and define
themselves by their past offending behaviour. The latter scenario is consistent with the
author’s observations of several group treatment sessions made during field research in the
US (Willis et al., 2014). Without any prompting from therapists, clients often introduced
themselves with their name, registration status and criminal history information (e.g., “My
name is Roger, I’m a registered sex offender with two felonies for soliciting a minor and one
for sexual violation by rape”).
Labelling in Academia and Beyond
The use of stigmatising and pejorative labels in forensic/correctional psychology is
especially salient outside of therapy settings. Many therapist manuals and guides currently in
circulation for sexual offending treatment providers use labels in their titles and/or content
(e.g., Carich & Musack, 2015; Prescott, 2009; Sawyer & Jennings, 2016; Yates, Prescott, &
Ward, 2010). Similarly, across all issues of Sexual Abuse
published in 2015, an average of
between one quarter and one third of articles used a label (or labels) in the article title, while
in 2016, the percentage rose to more than half (51.72%). In the Journal of Sexual
Highest ranked journal focused on sexual abuse; ranked 5/58 journals in Criminology and
Penology based on Impact Factor, 2016 Journal Citation Reports Social Sciences Edition
(Thomson Reuters, 2017)
The Ethics of Labelling
, nearly half (45.95%) of the articles across all issues published in 2015 and more
than half (55%) of the articles published in 2016 contained label(s) in their titles. Across
both journals, labels were used noticeably less when referring to young people who have
sexually offended. The world’s largest professional organizations to which clinicians,
academics and other professionals belong both use labels in their titles: The Association for
the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) and the International Association for the Treatment
of Sexual Offenders (IATSO). Importantly, these examples are not intended to suggest that
professional organizations and the highly respected authors of key texts and journal articles
advocate for the use of labels with clients. It is considered more likely that labelling clients is
advocated against, but that the use of labels outside the therapy room has become normalised.
Labelling therefore permeates into every-day conversation with colleagues, friends and
family, and in media contributions and other public engagement activities. When reporters
and politicians hear professionals talking about “sex offenders” or “sexual predators”, such
language becomes normalised for public consumption. Notwithstanding the impact of such
labels on the labelled individuals, professionals’ use of labels contradicts efforts to address
common misperceptions about recidivism risk and promote evidence-based sex crime
policies in the hope that clients will have opportunities to find somewhere to live, work and
pursue pro-social goals. Indeed, stable housing, employment and the presence of meaningful
pro-social goals are associated with a reduced risk of sexual recidivism (e.g., Willis & Grace,
2008, 2009). Findings from public opinion research suggest that the prototype activated by
the “sex offender” label is of someone with a history of sexual offending assaulting a stranger
victim (e.g., Katz-Schiavone, Levenson, & Ackerman, 2008; Levenson, Brannon, Fortney, &
Baker, 2007), consistent with the media’s representation of sexual crimes (e.g., Ducat,
Second highest-ranked journal focused on sexual abuse; ranked 32/58 journals in
Criminology and Penology based on Impact Factor, 2016 Journal Citation Reports Social
Sciences Edition (Thomson Reuters, 2017)
The Ethics of Labelling
Thomas, & Blood, 2009; Thakker & Durrant, 2006). Yet it is well established that most
individuals convicted for sex crimes have no prior sexual offence convictions, and abused a
known victim (Hanson & Bussière, 1998; A. J. R. Harris & Hanson, 2004). To the extent
that professionals continue to use stigmatising labels to refer to their clients and research
participants in everyday communication, there is a risk that stereotypes will be inadvertently
activated and reinforced. An emerging body of empirical research supports such a premise.
Imhoff (2015) found that the “paedophile” label was associated with exacerbated punitive
attitudes towards persons with paedophilic sexual interests compared to descriptive, non-
labelling language (i.e., “someone with sexual interest in children,” p. 37). Similarly, Harris
and Socia (2016) found that the “sex offender” and “juvenile sex offender” labels were
associated with greater public support for laws targeting persons who have sexually offended
including publically accessible registers and residence restrictions, compared to neutral
language (e.g., “People who have committed crimes of a sexual nature, p. 668). In the
broader psychological literature, Granello and Gibbs (2016) found that the label “the
mentally ill” was associated with lower levels of tolerance compared to the term “people with
mental illness.”
Emotive community responses that block opportunities for reintegration and
desistance have prompted a growing literature on public attitudes towards individuals
convicted of sexual crimes, including comparing attitudes between different professional and
demographic groups (for reviews see Harper, Hogue, & Bartels, 2017; Willis et al., 2010).
Ironically, the very studies investigating public attitudes towards individuals who have
sexually offended including those instigated by the author of the current paper have fallen
especially vulnerable to labels. As highlighted by Harris and Socia (2016), attitudinal scales
used in these studies often reinforce labelling in their names and item content including the
Attitudes Towards Sex offenders scale (Hogue, 1993) and the Community Attitudes
The Ethics of Labelling
Towards Sex Offenders scale (CATSO; Church, Wakeman, Miller, Clements, & Sun, 2008).
The CATSO, for example, is comprised of 18 statements to which respondents indicate their
level of agreement, including 12 that use labels (e.g., “Trying to rehabilitate a sex offender is
a waste of time”, “Convicted sex offenders should never be released from prison). Harris
and Socia (2016) highlighted that such usage of labels:
…implicitly force respondents to make general inferences and statements about a
knowingly diverse population. Ultimately, it may be that the resulting research
tells us more about respondents’ visceral reactions to the “sex offender” and
“JSO” [“juvenile sex offender”] labels than it does about rational assessments
regarding adults or youth who have perpetrated sexual offences (p. 2).
In other words, the use of labels in attitudinal scales might activate the prototype
described previously of someone convicted of recidivist offences and/or who targets stranger
victims. If true, studies utilizing such scales to explore public attitudes would find more
negative attitudes towards persons who have sexually offended than studies utilizing
attitudinal scales void of labels. A recent study by Lowe and Willis (2017) examined this
very hypothesis. Community member participants (N = 391) were randomly assigned to two
conditions and asked to complete different versions of the CATSO: one with labels, and one
with neutral descriptors. As hypothesised, those participants in the labelling condition
endorsed significantly more negative attitudes (based on the CATSO total score) than those
in the neutral language condition. Moreover, participants in the labelling condition were
more likely to voluntarily use labels in response to subsequent open-ended questions
compared to participants in the neutral condition. Findings thus suggested that the use of
The Ethics of Labelling
stigmatising labels by the researchers had a priming effect on participants’ future language
In summary, labelling persons convicted of sexual offences begins upon conviction
and sentencing (if not before), and those labels remain for many years, if not life. Effects of
labelling might be differentially reinforced or mitigated through therapy; however, outside of
therapy, labels are normalized in scholarly publications, legislation and everyday
conversation. The prototype activated by the “sex offender” label might compromise efforts
to influence public responses toward individuals convicted of sex crimes and promote
evidence based sex crime policies (A. J. Harris & Socia, 2016; Lowe & Willis, 2017).
Ultimately, the continued use of stigmatising and pejorative labels risks obstructing processes
associated with desistance from sexual offending (Göbbels, Ward, & Willis, 2012). As stated
by Maruna and LeBel (2010), “not only must a person accept conventional society in order to
go straight, but conventional society must accept that this person has changed as well” (p.
The Ethics of Labelling in Forensic/Correctional Psychology
Ethical issues facing helping professionals working in correctional and forensic
settings have received steady scholarly attention, especially with respect to the dual
relationship problem or the conflict between working therapeutically with clients whilst
assessing and managing risk to the community and upholding institutional security
(Greenberg & Shuman, 2007; Ward, 2013). Ethical frameworks have been developed to aid
ethical decision making (e.g., Bush, 2006; Ward & Syversen, 2009); however, to the author’s
knowledge, the use of pejorative and stigmatising labels has not been addressed as an ethical
issue confronting professionals working in the forensic/correctional field. It is argued herein
that the failure to identify labelling as an ethical issue is a serious oversight illustrative of the
The Ethics of Labelling
dual relationship problem, whereby helping professionals have become increasingly
influenced by political, legislative and societal demands to the extent that basic ethical
principles underlying psychological practice have been overlooked (see also Gannon &
Ward, 2014). Around the world, ethical codes and guidelines detail ethical values or
principles and associated practice standards for helping professionals. In this section, the use
of labels is evaluated against core ethical principles as outlined in psychologists’ codes of
All ethical codes for psychologists emphasize the basic ethical values of striving to
benefit client welfare, and at the very least, doing no harm (beneficence and nonmaleficence).
For example, the American Psychological Association Ethical Principles of Psychologists
and Code of Conduct explicitly states that “Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom
they work and take care to do no harm…psychologists seek to safeguard the welfare and
rights of those with whom they interact professionally…” (American Psychological
Association, 2010a, p. 3). Labels such as “sex offender” have potential for harm; as outlined
previously they stigmatize and isolate, potentially blocking opportunities for pro-social
living. Indeed, as highlighted, emerging evidence shows that the “sex offender” and
“paedophile” labels are associated with increased stigma compared to neutral, non-labelling
language (A. J. Harris & Socia, 2016; Imhoff, 2015). It is therefore the author’s opinion that
in the interests of safeguarding the welfare and rights of people who have abused, helping
professionals have an ethical responsibility to model neutral language in their everyday
communication, as discussed in the next section of this article (“Proposing a De-labelling
Another foundational value of ethical codes is respecting the dignity and inherent
worth of all persons (e.g., American Psychological Association, 2010a; Code of Ethics
Review Group, 2012; The Australian Psychological Society, 2007; The British Psychological
The Ethics of Labelling
Society, 2009), which is also at the heart of Ward and Syversen’s (2009) ethical framework
for forensic practice. In the author’s opinion, labelling someone by their past behaviour (e.g.,
“rapist”, “child molester”) is an excellent example of disrespecting the inherent worth of all
persons. Many other labels commonly used in forensic psychology and related fields risk
disrespecting the dignity of all persons, including labelling someone based on psychological
phenomena (e.g., “psychopath”) or diagnoses (e.g., “paedophile”). It is important to
acknowledge that some individuals who self-identify as paedophilic might choose to use
labels that acknowledge their sexual interest in children (e.g., “minor-attracted person,”
“virtuous paedophile”), for reasons akin to people with substance related disorders and other
mental health problems choosing to label themselves on the basis of their difficulties (e.g.,
“addict,” “Bipolar, “Schizophrenic”). Indeed, such labels might bring some people a sense
of relief through providing an explanation for their difficulties, and self-identification with a
label might represent an important step in someone’s treatment or recovery. Thus, the same
labels might be perceived as helpful to some people yet stigmatising and pejorative to others.
What is clear is that we cannot make assumptions about how labels might be perceived, and
how someone chooses to label themselves. Indeed, in their guidance for reducing bias in
written language the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association advices
authors to “respect peoples preferences; call people what they prefer to be called” and
moreover that “A label should not be used in any form that is perceived as pejorative; if such
a perception is possible you need to find more neutral terms [emphasis added] (American
Psychological Association, 2010b, p. 72).
Ethical codes also emphasise psychologistsresponsibilities to society, either as they
relate to other core ethical principles or as a core ethical principle in its own right. Social
Justice and Responsibility to Society is one of the four key ethical principles underpinning
the Code of Ethics for Psychologists Working in Aotearoa New Zealand (Code of Ethics
The Ethics of Labelling
Review Group, 2012). The New Zealand code states clearly that psychologists have a
responsibility [emphasis added] to speak out…when they possess expert knowledge that
bears on important societal issues being studied or discussed (p. 26) and, furthermore, that
“Psychologists have a responsibility [emphasis added] to speak out…if they believe policies,
practices or regulations of the social structures within which psychologists work, seriously
ignore or oppose any of the principles of this Code [Respect for the dignity of persons and
peoples, Responsible caring, Integrity of relationships, Social justice and responsibility to
society].” Sexual offending frequents media headlines worldwide. As a main source of
public information about sexual offending (e.g., Brown, Deakin, & Spencer, 2008; Sample &
Kadleck, 2008), the media undoubtedly contributes to and perpetuates misperceptions about
individuals convicted of sexual crimes. The media takes labelling one step further,
effectively dehumanizing individuals convicted for sexual offences by labelling them
“monsters” and “beasts” (e.g., Breen, 2004; Forbes, 2014). Despite the media’s
misrepresentation of sexual crimes and proliferation of derogatory language, analyses of
media reports of sexual crimes reveal very minimal input from psychologists and other
helping professionals (Ducat et al., 2009; Greer, 2003; Thakker & Durrant, 2006; Wood &
Dickson, 2013). In the author’s opinion and consistent with the ethical principle of
responsibility to society, there is an onus on psychologists and other professionals to address
societal responses to sexual crimes that undermine rehabilitation and reintegration, including
the use of stigmatizing and pejorative language.
Across ethical codes, there is recognition that societal structures or policies may
sometimes be inconsistent with core ethical principles, and in these instances, psychologists
are encouraged to advocate for change to such structures and policies (e.g., American
Psychological Association, 2010a). For example, the American Psychological Association
Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct recognizes that at times conflicts
The Ethics of Labelling
might arise between “ethics and the law, regulations or other governing legal authority” and
between “ethics and organizational demands” (p. 4). Psychologists are advised to take
actions to resolve such conflicts in line with core ethical principles (e.g., beneficence and
nonmaleficence, respect for the dignity of all persons) and that “under no circumstances may
this standard be used to justify or defend violating human rights” (p. 4). It is the author’s
opinion that the use of labels highlighted in this paper is a violation of human rights, both to
the labelled individual and to community members: The labelled person has the right to
dignity, and community members have the right to safety. As has been highlighted,
stigmatizing and pejorative labels risk jeopardizing both.
In summary, a clear disparity exists between the use of labels and the ethical
principles of beneficence and nonmaleficence, respect for the dignity of all persons, as well
as responsibilities to society. In the author’s opinion, not only does labelling based on past
behaviour, criminal conviction, psychological phenomena or diagnosis contradict
professional ethics, passively accepting others’ use of labels also contradicts professional
ethics. It is the author’s opinion that a de-labelling movement in forensic and correctional
psychology and related fields is therefore long overdue.
Proposing a De-labelling Movement
Before proposing a de-labelling movement, it is important to acknowledge some
exceptions to the status quo the authors, professional organizations, programmes and
practices that don’t use pejorative and stigmatising labels. Current workbooks in circulation
for use with clients are typically devoid of labels (e.g., Morin & Levenson, 2012; Yates &
Prescott, 2011). While the names of the world’s largest professional organizations dedicated
to sexual offending treatment and prevention contain labels, others do not (e.g., the
“Australian and New Zealand Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abuse”). Moreover,
The Ethics of Labelling
many treatment programme names are devoid of labels, including the “Te Piriti” and “Kia
Marama” Special Treatment Units in New Zealand which are Māori for “The bridge: A
crossing over to a better life” and “Let there be Light” respectively (Bakker, Hudson, Wales,
& Riley, 1998; Nathan, Wilson, & Hillman, 2003). In Circles of Support and Accountability,
a volunteer-driven reintegration framework, the individuals receiving reintegrative support
are referred to as “core members (e.g., Wilson & Prinzo, 2001). In addition to these
examples, there are no doubt many helping professionals who actively avoid using labels in
professional and personal dialogue. Nevertheless, labelling dominates.
The first steps towards de-labelling are obvious labels can easily be removed from
the names of treatment programmes and professional organizations and the titles and content
of books and journal articles simply by substituting labels that can be perceived as
stigmatising or pejorative (e.g., “sex offender, “abuser”) for behaviour (e.g., “sexual
abuse”). Such changes have been achieved in related fields; for example, in 2005 the US
“National Alliance for the Mentally Ill” became the “National Alliance on Mental Illness”
(National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2017). Similarly in academic writing, as demonstrated
by Harris and Socia (2016) and Imhoff (2015), labels can be replaced with neutral descriptors
that separate a person from their behaviour. The Publication Manual of the American
Psychological Association (2010b) recommends putting the person first followed by the
phrase (e.g., people convicted of sexual crimes, man with paedophilic sexual interests), which
has been the author’s approach throughout this article. In other words, the American
Psychological Association advocates for postmodified language, which differs from
premodified nouns (e.g., a paedophilic man). Premodified nouns arguably suffer the same
problems as labelling an individual on the basis of a conviction or disorder (e.g.,
“paedophile”), given that the person is defined on the basis of belonging to a highly
stigmatised group. Anecdotally, some professionals consider a move to separating the person
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from the behaviour too difficult given that more words are introduced into a sentence. It is
the author’s opinion that if we are serious about respecting client dignity, benefiting client
welfare, upholding responsibilities to society and preventing sexual abuse we should make
the effort. In the author’s experience, writing and talking in the absence of labels becomes
habitual and effortless.
How might the hierarchical structures in which scholars and clinicians work support a
move towards person-first language? Journal editorial boards, book publishers and
conference organizers might consider requiring authors to remove labels from their
presentations and manuscript submissions, as occurs in other fields. The manuscript
preparation guidelines for the journal Aphasiology state that “Aphasiology requires that the
word ‘aphasic’ is written as an adjective, not a noun” for reasons including the offensiveness
of describing a person with aphasia as an aphasic ("Aphasiology Instructions for Authors,"
2015). As above and as advocated by the American Psychological Association (2010b), an
alternate approach would be to promote postmodified language such that a person is not
defined by a disability, condition or past behaviour (i.e., “aphasic person” becomes “person
with aphasia”). The use of postmodified language is epitomised in the field of intellectual
disability research and practice. Since the early 1990s, person first language has become
increasingly normalised; individuals previously labelled “mental retard” are now commonly
referred to as individuals “with an intellectual disability(e.g., Russell, Mammen, & Russell,
2005). Similar movements have occurred in the broader mental health literature; rarely do
we read journal articles about “schizophrenics” or “borderlines”.
To gain traction in the communities to which persons who have sexually offended
return, language free from labels must be modelled from media interviews and social media
posts to informal gatherings of friends and family. While it will take conscious effort and
practice to remove labels from everyday dialogue, the task is relatively easy. Advocating for
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the abolishment of labels in news and popular media, legislation and elsewhere presents
greater challenges, given labels have become engrained in many societal structures (e.g., the
U.S. “Sexually Violent Predator” laws). However, as highlighted, ethical guidelines advocate
that psychologists and other helping professionals speak out when societal structures oppose
professional ethics. It is the author’s opinion that passive acceptance of others’ use of labels
such as working for a “Sex Offender Treatment Program” or conducting “Sexually Violent
Predator” evaluations present ethical dilemmas that helping professionals must address. As
stated by Ewing (2011):
…mental health professionals, all of whom are trained in the social sciences,
have been offered a choice between empiricism and employment. In the short
run the payoff, especially for some individual practitioners, has been great, but
in the long run, the damage done to their professions and the people who would
be served by them may prove to be much greater (p. 206).
More recently Prescott (2015) and Brandt, Wilson and Prescott (2015) echoed
similar sentiments. While Prescott, Brandt et al. and Ewing’s (2011) comments
concern working in the context of empirically unsupported legislation in the US, the
same arguments apply to the passive acceptance of labelling. Many helping
professionals work within societal structures that undermine core ethical principles
and therefore face ethical dilemmas to address. Undoubtedly, many community
members will argue that people who have committed crimes and in particular sexual
crimes are deserving of the labels they have been assigned given the inexcusable
harm they have inflicted on others. It is not disputed that these individuals are
deserving of punishment; however, punishment is a separate issue not to be conflated
with reducing risk of future harm (see Ward & Salmon, 2009). Persons responsible
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for sexual crimes do not deserve to be set up for failure, and neither do the
communities to which they return.
The focus of the current paper has been on labels assigned based on one’s
convictions, past behaviour or psychological characteristics that might increase one’s
susceptibility to engage in certain types of offending. It is important to acknowledge
the many other labels commonly used in forensic and correctional psychology, and in
particular the “victim” and “survivor” labels. While such labels may not carry the
same negative connotations as labels assigned to individuals who have perpetrated
sexual abuse, they can nevertheless be counterproductive and disrespectful to
individuals who have experienced abuse. Some people who have been abused might
embrace the “victim” and/or “survivor” labels; indeed such labels might bring them a
sense of strength and empowerment and are often labels of choice (e.g., working as a
“survivor advocate”). Yet other individuals who have suffered sexual abuse may
perceive such labels as disempowering, stigmatizing and/or traumatic reminders of
what has happened to them, not who they are as a person. To reiterate, we cannot
assume how a label might be perceived by the recipient. Instead, we can listen to
clients and research participants and identify what labels they use to describe
themselves, and reflect those same labels back to them.
The use of stigmatising and pejorative labels to refer to people who have (sexually)
offended has become normalised by academics and other professionals, politicians and the
media. The argument to stop using labels is not to minimise the harm these people have
inflicted on others. Rather, that harm is the very reason underpinning the author’s argument
to stop using labels, which is also advocated by the governing style guide in the social and
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behavioural sciences (American Psychological Association, 2010b) and across professional
codes of ethics. Continued use of stigmatizing, pejorative labels risks obstructing desistance
processes, ostracizing our clients and widening the gap between them and conventional
society. If we want our clients to be a part of conventional society and live by the rules that
govern conventional society, they must first be accepted into conventional society as fellow
men, women, young people, brothers, partners, students, mechanics, sports enthusiasts and
the like. Making lasting behavioural changes presents challenges for everyone, and such
challenges are magnified when other people believe failure is more likely than success.
Whether intentional or not, labelling persons who have sexually offended by what they have
done communicates the expectation they will do so again. We all have a choice. We can
continue to model stigmatising and pejorative language that politicians and the media will no
doubt take one step further, or we can start changing the way we talk about the men, women
and young people we work with and research, in the hope that they too will change.
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... For many core members, CoSA may be the first time in their lives that they are engaging in healthy relationships with people who genuinely care about their well-being -and who are not paid to spend time with them. The relationship itself, and its voluntary nature, are fundamental 1 We do not use the term 'sex offenders', which we feel lumps together a very wide range of actions and also stigmatizes people by equating them with specific wrong actions -see Willis, 2018. to CoSA's success. ...
Ecotherapy and gardening have gained popularity in corrections, with most interventions focusing on prison settings. This paper briefly describes the authors’ experiences developing a gardening program in a community corrections facility for women, describing a pilot research program and preliminary results. Findings indicate that gardening is an effective, low-cost programming option for community residential settings that improve clients’ mental health and nutritional awareness, fosters community partnerships, and promotes camaraderie among clients and staff.
... This argument is the same as that made in correctional psychology against the holding of "offenders" as the core construct of analysis and instead for "individual agents" or "persons". Not only does this approach have the pragmatic and ethical benefit of helping to destigmatise professional practice by reducing the effects of labelling (Willis, 2018), but it also offers greater explanatory value by broadening the scope of consideration to look beyond offence-related characteristics and consider a broad range of behaviours, motivations, changes in identity, life roles, personal trajectories, and transformations (Ward, 2002(Ward, , 2016Ward & Maruna, 2007). It is this kind of scope that offers greater opportunity to facilitate important outcomes such as desistance. ...
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Gangs are associated with a range of social, criminal, and economic harms. Yet, after almost a century of dedicated research, the development of effective and ethical responses to such harms has proven difficult. Recent attempts to address this have seen the establishment of the Eurogang Program; an international group of gang researchers and practitioners coordinated around a consensus definition of gangs. Since its recent inception, the Eurogang Program has quickly become the dominant framework of research and practice. While much is being staked on the success of the Eurogang Program, the suitability of such a programme for progressing gang research is yet to be thoroughly examined. In this thesis I therefore conduct a meta-theoretical examination of the state of gang research and particularly the Eurogang Program and its associated practices. By examining the frameworks underpinning gang research and drawing upon insights from the philosophy of science, I characterise the Eurogang approach as an attempt to coordinate gang research through means of unification (i.e., through the privileging of particular research perspectives and strategies to achieve coordination through consensus). I draw attention to some major limitations of these unificatory attempts and emphasise how the consensus Eurogang definition does not appropriately set up researchers to be able to develop the various kinds of conceptual and theoretical understandings of gangs required to improve gang policy and practice. Instead, I make the case for a framework known as epistemic pluralism, in which researchers do not pursue consensus but rather cultivate multiple systems of knowing to serve a variety of different research purposes. After establishing the benefit of epistemic pluralism, I examine how such a framework may be applied to the gang field. This involves specific discussion of the various aims of gang researchers and the roles that conceptual strategies (i.e., definitional, classificatory, and explanatory approaches) play in providing the pragmatic and epistemic (i.e., knowledge-related) insights required to meet them. These discussions offer a novel perspective on the roles of conceptual strategies in the process of knowledge production and justification. Having established the general kinds of strategies required for different research purposes, I then consider some specific examples of conceptual strategies that are relevant to meeting the various needs of gang researchers. This takes the form of the Conceptual Framework for Gang Research (CFGR). This novel approach offers greater opportunities for more meaningful kinds of research coordination and maximises the likelihood of establishing the conceptual and theoretical understandings of gangs required to improve gang policy and practice. The value of this thesis as a case study for pursuing epistemic pluralism in the sciences is also discussed.
... Finally, clinicians claiming to use the GLM sometimes talk about their clients in other ways that depart from the core values of the GLM; most notably, that clients are fellow human beings worthy of respect . In many cases, this can involve labeling language, such as referring to clients as "sex offenders" or "abusers" with little regard to how this might undermine treatment efforts (Willis, 2018). The circumstances in which forensic and correctional practitioners often find themselves means that their workday can include shifting how they think from a holistic understanding of their clients in one moment to documenting sessions in a way that outside stakeholders such as evaluators or accrediting agencies will understand and find helpful. ...
Efforts to implement the Good Lives Model (GLM) in offending treatment programs highlight common challenges across diverse settings. Long described as an overarching framework for rehabilitation, the GLM has recently been reconstructed as a practice framework. In this paper, the authors explore how the reconstruction of the GLM as a practice framework can help address challenges to GLM implementation observed internationally. Challenges to effective implementation of the GLM in a variety of settings and across cultures are described, based upon the authors' experiences helping programs and practitioners use the GLM to their fullest potential. Drawing on the theoretical resources of practice frameworks, it offers ideas for how programs and practitioners can respond to these challenges as implementation efforts unfold. Specifically, the paper focuses on how core values and principles of the GLM (Level 1 of practice frameworks) can inform intervention guidelines (Level 3 of practice frameworks). Research has been clear that proper implementation of any treatment approach can take considerable time to conduct properly; it is the authors' hope to equip programs and practitioners with ideas for moving forward thoughtfully with the GLM.
... For Participant 1 in particular, building a positive relationship with someone she views as being successful while being minor-attracted allowed her to see that it is possible to incorporate her sexual attractions to children into a prosocial and successful broader identity, and this helped her to feel some positivity toward her future. The forensic literature has made a recent move toward seeing people as more than just what they have done, or what their sexual attractions are (Seto, 2018b;Willis, 2018). However, the narratives of the women in our sample suggest that having positive role models that show how a full life can be lived with minor attraction instills hope, which in turn is associated with greater levels of wellbeing among MAPs . ...
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The current body of the literature studying minor-attracted persons (MAPs) predominantly focuses on the experiences of men who experience sexual attractions to children. To shed more light on the experiences of women within this population, we conducted anonymous semi-structured interviews with six self-identified female MAPs, who were recruited through online support forums for individuals with sexual attractions to children. Interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) was used to analyze the interview transcripts. Two superordinate themes were identified from the dataset that highlighted the uniqueness of the experience of being a woman within the MAP community (“A minority within a minority”) and themes of social isolation and the effects of this on identity (“A lonely secret existence”). The findings reported here highlight how the experiences of female MAPs both converge with and diverge from their male counterparts in important ways. We discuss the implications of these experiences in relation to more effective service provision for women who are sexually attracted to children.
Practice frameworks are a unique type of theory that bridge the gap between abstract explanatory theories, knowledge categories, normative assumptions, and treatment theories. The values component of practice frameworks is particularly critical as it frames the problem space (niches) within which practitioners engage in practice tasks, for example, moral repair, risk reduction, or community integration. It also picks out the specific kinds of entities and their relationships that researchers are most interested in. In effect, values and their related principles play a major role in abstractly mapping out domains of practice while the knowledge related assumptions (e.g., core categories and causal powers) flesh out core entities and processes indicated by these values. In this paper we provide an overview of practice frameworks and examine the role of their normative assumptions in mapping out correctional research and practice tasks.
It is generally recognized that preventing sexual misconduct on college and university campuses requires a broad comprehensive approach that includes providing services to all persons impacted by sexual harm—those who have been harmed, those who have caused harm, those at risk to cause harm, and the communities connected to these individuals. From this important grounding, the chapter opens a conversation focused on the origins and pathways of those who cause the harm and what we know and don’t know about these individuals. Expanding our traditional understanding of sexual violence to include what is known about those who cause sexual harm offers us a more complex understanding of the heterogeneity of those who harm, which includes a wider range of behaviors, motivations, developmental differences, cognitive differences, as well as risk factors and protective factors that need attention. A discussion of this wider range of information about the individuals causing the harm can empower prevention professionals to identify a wider range of opportunities to intervene to prevent these behaviors in the first place. In the college and university campus setting, this deeper dive into the risk and protective factors for perpetration and the context where it occurs may allow for campuses to build new bridges within the campus community, between campus and outside expertise, as well as to strengthen existing collaborations and networks.
Since the Good Lives Model’s (GLM) inception, researchers and practitioners have faced questions about its implementation. Programs claiming to use the GLM vary substantially in the extent to which the GLM informs treatment, and no tools exist to monitor therapist fidelity to the GLM. The aim of the current paper is to offer a concrete tool to monitor therapist fidelity to the GLM. The GLM Fidelity Monitoring Tool offers the beginnings of a method for how therapists and supervisors can address the central question of “How well are we implementing the Good Lives Model?” The tool consists of three sections: (i) Fundamental Considerations and Processes, which focus on therapeutic process variables consistent with the GLM but not specific to the GLM, and are rated numerically for fidelity; (ii) GLM-Specific Considerations and Processes, also rated numerically for fidelity, and (iii) Client-Focused GLM Considerations, which are a set of questions exploring the therapist’s progress developing a GLM grounded case formulation and therapy plan for individual clients. The tool is designed to help guide supervision discussions
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Pedofilie is een maatschappelijk gevoelig thema, waarover verschillende misvattingen en stigma’s circuleren. Ook binnen de klinische praktijk blijft het een taboeonderwerp. Veel te vaak wordt pedofilie gelijkgesteld met kindermisbruik. Onderzoek toont echter aan dat heel wat mensen seksuele interesses voor minderjarigen ervaren zonder tot seksueel kindermisbruik over te gaan. De negatieve opvattingen hebben niet alleen impact op het sociale leven en het psychosociaal welzijn van personen met een seksuele voorkeur voor minderjarigen ̶ in het Engels minor-attracted persons (MAPs) genoemd ̶ , het heeft ook invloed op het hulpzoekend gedrag van deze personen. De huidige studie beoogt meer inzicht te verwerven in het hulpzoekend gedrag van MAPs. Uit de resultaten blijkt dat slechts een minderheid hulp heeft gezocht. Vooral formele hulpbronnen of hulp door professionals lijken van belang in hun zoektocht naar hulp, maar de drempel ernaartoe blijft groot. Niet alleen duidelijkheid rond de toegang en de beschikbaarheid van formele hulpbronnen zijn noodzakelijk om de zoektocht naar gepaste hulp te faciliteren, ook de houding en attitude van hulpverleners ten aanzien van MAPs spelen een belangrijke rol. In deze bijdrage wordt besproken hoe bestaande initiatieven hier reeds op anticiperen, ook worden aanbevelingen geformuleerd over de wijze waarop het bestaande hulpaanbod beter kan aansluiten bij de noden van MAPs.
This chapter provides an overview of the historical origins, development, and future of the field of forensic psychology. The definition and scope of forensic psychology will be discussed with attention to the range of disciplines in the behavioral and social sciences, key theorists and researchers, and the role and importance of forensic psychology in criminal justice and forensic practice. Topics include: early development of the field and terminology, definition, and scope of the body of work at the intersection of psychology, criminology, and law. The role of forensic psychology and assessment in criminal justice decision-making in policing, courts, corrections, and victim services will be examined. Challenges and promises for the future of forensic psychology will be explored.
Stigma directed towards persons with convictions for sexual offences and its potentially risk enhancing effects has prompted a growing body of research on public attitudes towards individuals who have sexually offended, including attitude measurement. However, many questions in attitudinal scales use the “sex offender” label, which potentially perpetuates stigma. The current study, which was part of a larger study examining effects of offence-based labels, sought to examine whether responses on an attitudinal scale would differ when person-first language was used instead of the “sex offender” label. Participants (N = 372) were randomly assigned to a label condition or person-first language condition and completed an anonymous online survey that included a popular attitudinal scale. A small, significant effect of labelling was observed: offence-based labels were associated with more negative attitudes than neutral descriptors. Implications for future research are discussed.
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Even though the great majority of sexual offender-specific treatment has been delivered in a group format for decades, this is the first book to be dedicated specifically to group therapy with sexual abusers. This comprehensive text blends current knowledge of sexual offender-specific treatment and knowledge from the general group therapy literature to present sound, practical principles and guidelines for conducting highly effective group-based therapy to treat individuals who have sexually abused.
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The prevalence of adverse childhood experiences is disproportionately high in samples of females who have sexually offended compared to females in the general population. Childhood adversity is associated with myriad negative psychosocial outcomes in adulthood; however, the relationship between adverse childhood experiences (ACE) and psychosocial outcomes in adult females who have sexually offended has not been investigated, nor has the relationship between ACE and problematic sexual behaviour. Accordingly, the purpose of this exploratory study was to examine the relationship between ACE and adult outcomes in the lives of female sexual offenders (N = 47). Significant positive correlations were found between ACE scores and alcohol and drug abuse, depression, suicidality, being arrested for a driving crime or a non-person, non-property crime, anxiety-related symptoms, and promiscuous and coercive sexual behaviours. As ACE scores increased, so did Odds ratios for the likelihood of a substance use problem, mental health problem, and being arrested for a nonsexual crime. Implications for trauma-informed and schema-focused therapeutic work with female clients who have sexually offended are discussed.
The present study examined the effect of offense-based labels on community members’ willingness to volunteer with people convicted for varying offenses and any priming effect of labeling language. Participants (N = 310) were randomly assigned to a label condition or a neutral condition and completed an anonymous online survey about their willingness to volunteer with different groups. The labeling condition utilized labels (e.g., “sex offenders,” “murderers”), whereas the control condition utilized neutral descriptors (e.g., “people who have committed crimes of a sexual nature”). Overall, findings supported the hypothesis that offense-based labels were associated with less willingness to volunteer, with findings most pronounced for the “sex offender” and “child sex offender” labels. Participants in the labeling condition showed greater voluntary use of labels compared with neutral language and were more likely to use labels compared with participants in the neutral condition. Implications for influencing public opinion are discussed.
The principles of forensic and correctional rehabilitation inquiry, key forensic and correctional concepts, and their translation into practice are shot through with normative commitments of one type or another. The degree to which values pervade every level and aspect of research and practice is rarely, if ever, acknowledged. This is a problem, as it means that there may be a tendency to adopt research and practice positions that are ideological in nature and insufficiently justified. In this paper we examine how values of various types guide and shape action at the level of scientific inquiry, influence the construction of rehabilitation theories, and shape the concepts of dynamic risk and protective factors. For each class of normative issues, we propose ways in which researchers and practitioners can acknowledge these challenges while also respecting the factual basis of science.
There are perhaps no crimes that instill fear and rage in society like sexual offenses. This chapter will first summarize the history of contemporary sex offender registries and community management policies over the past two decades. Then, the effectiveness and impact of these laws will be described, as well as the pros and cons of residential restrictions that have emerged in an effort to protect children from sexual predators. Finally, evidence-based recommendations for registry reform will be offered that focus on narrowing the scope of registries through risk assessment, allowing more discretion to judicial decision-makers, and reducing barriers to reintegration and rehabilitation that are often unintended consequences of these laws.
Over the past two decades, a large body of research on attitudes towards sexual offenders has been conducted across a number of different contexts. However, there has been less discussion of their implications. Clinically, attitudes may be related to therapeutic climates and treatment outcomes and risk judgments, while in the social context, the views of the public about sexual offenders may play a key role in the reintegration of these offenders, and the political responses associated with sexual offending. Sexual crime is advocated as a public health issue, with attitudes towards the perpetrators of such offenses being of critical importance when trying to create a social environment within which to successfully reduce rates of sexual offending. In this article, the research evidence currently available in this area is reviewed. An analysis of the conceptualization and measurement of attitudes towards sexual offenders is provided, before the existing literature on the factors underlying such attitudes is explored. Following this, the malleability of attitudes towards sexual offenders is examined. The review concludes with some suggestions for future theoretical, empirical, and practical advancements in this important area.
Almost everyone who is incarcerated is one day released back into the community (Petersilia, 2004). This is just as true for sexual offenders as it is for their non-sexual-offender counterparts, but their experiences of release and re-entry tend to be monitored considerably more closely. Given the undeniable gravity and significant social costs of child sexual abuse (in particular), it is essential that we are as well informed as possible about what helps and what hinders the successful community re-entry of the perpetrators of these offences. It is also necessary to identify not just the factors that reduce recidivism, but also the factors that maximize desistance from offending and prevent sexual victimization. Sexual offending research is now a well-established area of study, but the dynamic nature of a sex offender’s criminal career has only recently attracted research attention, and we know comparatively little about the mechanisms of desistance from sexual offending. We do know that desistance is not a new phenomenon. Criminologists have observed its existence for centuries (Laws and Ward, 2011; Sampson and Laub, 1993): most individuals with criminal histories eventually stop offending (Göbbels et al., 2012; Maruna, 2001). Decades of mostly psychological research on sexual offending consistently show that risk declines with age, and recidivism is lowered when treatment and social supports are available (Scoones et al., 2012). Without labelling it so, the empirical reality of low sexual recidivism is essentially evidence of desistance. What is new is the recent reframing of sexual offending within the language of desistance (Farmer et al., 2011; Laws and Ward, 2011; Willis et al., 2010). The central aim of the present study was to contribute to this growing body of literature and examine the nature and extent of desistance from sexual offending in a sample of men convicted of sexual offences and recently released from custody.
This chapter will first describe what is currently known about the registered sex offender (RSO) population in the USA, as well as what we know about victimization patterns. Then, common public perceptions about sexual offenders will be compared with research findings. Sex offender registration and residential restriction laws will be examined to illustrate the gaps that can exist between evidence and practice. Registration durations of 25 years to life contradict empirical evidence that risk declines with increased time spent in the community offense-free. Thus, the emphasis on registration compliance over longer registration periods will likely create an inefficient distribution of resources without contributing meaningfully to community safety. Lawmakers should invest in evidence-based policies rather than those that demonstrate negligible public safety benefit. Sexual assault is a serious social problem, and in order to be effective, prevention strategies should reflect not only public opinion, but empirical demonstration of effectiveness. This chapter will explore how contemporary sex offender management policy might better incorporate empirical research into sound prevention strategies.