Fact Sheet: Sex Offender Treatment

About the fact-sheet series: Fact sheets summarize current literature into a short (2 page) document intended for distribution. Fact-sheets are extremely useful for academics, professionals or laypeople who are in contact with offenders, victims, corrections or the legal system in any way. They provide a means to disseminate empirically based information in a way that is both quick and useful. Fact sheets undergo the EAPL-S peer review process and editing before publication.

About the author: This article was written as a guest post by Jay Toomey, PhD candidate at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York (CUNY).

View this document in it's full glory by downloading the pdf here.



Remember to also read our factsheet on sex offenders!


In the United States, 20 states currently have laws that allow for the indefinite confinement of sexual offenders who are believed to pose a continued risk of reoffending after serving their criminal sentence. Minnesota currently houses the largest number of sexual offenders per capita, and spends $120,000 per year to house and treat each committed offender; triple the cost to incarcerate the same individual (Office of the Legislative Auditor, State of Minnesota, 2011). Consequently, there is significant incentive to investigate treatment programs that can effectively reduce individual risk of reoffending, so that offenders may be safely released into the community to live healthy and productive lives.

Relapse Prevention

The earliest comprehensive model for treating sexual offenders was based on a thoroughly researched treatment program for drug and alcohol abuse called Relapse Prevention (RP; Marlatt, 1982). The relapse prevention model focuses on identifying patterns of abuse and high-risk situations that can trigger reusing, developing and maintaining a sense of personal competence, as well as developing and maintaining cognitive and behavioral interventions to deal with and prevent reusing. Laws (1989) believed that Marlatt’s model could be adapted to sexual offenders and their patterns of offending. Consequently, the use of the RP model rapidly spread throughout the field of sexual offender treatment, with very little support to determine whether the model was in fact effective in reducing the likelihood of reoffending. The model earned an early reputation for being highly confrontational, and almost entirely focused on identifying and eliminating deviance (Marshall, Marshall, Serran, & O’Brien, 2011). It was only recently that many researchers in the field of sexual offender treatment called for an outright rejection of the RP model (Yates, 2007; Yates & Ward, 2009), favoring for more empirically- supported treatments to take its place.

Risk, Needs, Responsivity





One of the most influential models for formulating offender treatment was developed by Andrews, Bonta and Hoge (1990) and focuses on three principles known as the risk, needs, and responsivity (RNR) principles. The authors’ review of existing offender treatment studies revealed that reoffending rates are more effectively reduced when programs: 1) tailor treatment approaches to match program intensity with offender risk level; 2) target needs of offenders that may trigger criminal behavior (e.g., “criminogenic needs” such as antisocial associates, antisocial thoughts, substance abuse, etc.); and 3) match the style and presentation of treatment with the offender’s learning style and abilities (Andrews, Bonta, & Wormith, 2011). Extensive research on the RNR model has found that the model to also be effective when applied to sexual offender populations. Of course, this model has also experienced its fair share of criticism. For example, Ward and Stewart (2003) criticized the focus on criminogenic needs for ignoring more basic human goods such as attaining creative outlets, loving relationships, and enjoyable work.

Good Lives Model

The focus on personal strengths and the striving for fulfilling one’s ultimate potential is by no means a new concept in the field of psychology. Recently, these diverse issues were integrated into what is now known as Positive Psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). The most recent model of sexual offender treatment to be adopted throughout the United States and Canada has drawn heavily from the Positive Psychology tradition and proposes that humans continuously strive towards attaining satisfaction in nine primary areas. Ward (2002) developed the Good Lives Model (GLM) and proposed that by learning healthy and adaptive ways to achieve (a) optimal mental, physical and sexual health, (b) knowledge, (c) mastery in work and play, (d) autonomy, (e) inner peace, (f) relatedness, (g) creativity, (h) spirituality, and (i) happiness, the need to pursue antisocial outlets will necessarily diminish. While preliminary research has shown promise for the effectiveness of the model, Andrews et al. (2011) have criticized the GLM model as offering nothing new when compared to the RNR model.


While the need to provide treatment to individuals who sexually offend is not a novel concept, the need to develop efficient and effective treatments has become more of a pressing issue in light of the proliferation of sexual offender commitment laws throughout the United States. While the present discussion is by no means comprehensive, it sheds some light on the current direction of sexual offender treatment in North America.

Quick summary

  • There is a need for efficient and effective treatment
  • Relapse Prevention (RP) is based on treatment of Substance Abuse
  • Risk, Needs, Responsivity (RNR) calls for treatment of offenders that is supported by scientific research
  • Good Lives Model (GLM) is a strengths based approach.

Where can I get more information?

Information from the EAPL-S is available online, in PDF, or as paper brochures sent through the mail. If you would like to have EAPL-S publications, you can order hardcopies for a nominal fee through This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .


  1. Andrews, D. A., Bonta, J., & Hoge, R. D. (1990). Classification for effective rehabilitation: Rediscovering psychology. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 17, 19-52.
  2. Andrews, D. A., Bonta., J., Wormith, J. S. (2011) The risk, needs, Responsivity (RNR) model: Does adding the good lives model contribute to effective crime prevention? Criminal Justice and Behavior, 38, 735-755. doi: 10.1177/0093854811406356
  3. Laws, D. R. (Ed.). (1989). Relapse prevention with sex offenders. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  4. Marlatt, G. A. (1982). Relapse prevention: a self-control program for the treatment of addictive behaviors. In R. B. Stuart (Ed.), Adherence, compliance and generalization in behavioral medicine (pp. 329-378). New York, NY: Brunner/Mazel.
Marshall, W. L.,
  5. Marshall, L. E., Serran, G. A., & O’Brien, M. D. (2011). Rehabilitating sexual offenders: A strength-based approach. Washington, DC: APA Books.
  6. Office of the Legislative Auditor, State of Minnesota (March, 2011). Evaluation report: Civil commitment of sex offenders. Retrieved from http://www.auditor.leg.state.mn.us/ped/p edrep/ccso.pdf
  7. Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5-14. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.5
  8. Ward, T. (2002). Good lives and the rehabilitation of offenders: Promises and problems. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 7, 513-528. doi: 10.1016/S1359-1789(01)00076-3
  9. Ward, T., & Stewart, C. (2003). Criminogenic needs and human needs: A theoretical model. Psychology, Crime & Law, 9, 125-143. doi: 10.1080/1068316031000116247
  10. Yates, P. M. (2007). Taking the leap: Abandoning relapse prevention and applying the self-regulation model to the treatment of sexual offenders. In D. Prescott (Ed.), Applying knowledge to practice: The treatment and supervision of sexual abusers (pp. 143-174). Oklahoma City, OK: Wood N’ Barnes.
  11. Yates, P. M., & Ward, T. (2009). Yes, relapse prevention should be abandoned: A reply to Carich, Dobkowski, and Delhanty (2008). ATSA Forum, 21, 9-21.

Fact Sheet Series Information

EAPL-S publications are in the public domain and may be reproduced or copied without the permission from the European Association of Psychology and Law Student Society (EAPL-S). EAPL-S encourages you to reproduce them and use them in your efforts to improve awareness of issues in psychology, corrections and law. Citation of the European Association of Psychology and Law as a source is appreciated. However, using these materials inappropriately can raise legal or ethical concerns, so we ask you to use these guidelines:

  • EAPL-S does not endorse or recommend any commercial products, processes, or services, and publications may not be used for advertising or endorsement purposes.
  • EAPL-S does not provide specific medical advice or treatment recommendations, legal action or referrals; these materials may not be used in a manner that has the appearance of such information.
  • EAPL-S requests that organizations not alter publications in a way that will jeopardize the integrity and "brand" when using publications.
  • Addition of EAPL and EAPL-S logos and website links may not have the appearance of EAPL-S endorsement of any specific commercial products or services or medical treatments or legal services.
If you have questions regarding these guidelines and use of EAPL-S publications, please contact the EAPL-S at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Overview of Fact Sheet topics covered to date