Denial is NOT Related to Recidivism in Sexual Offenders

Mark Zelig, Ph.D., ABPP:

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In the past 15 years, research-based psychological tests and rating scales have allowed psychologists to become much more proficient at evaluating the risk of recidivism in both violent and sexual offenders.  We are much better equipped than ever before, to give Courts and other decision makers informed testimony to help them discriminate between offenders who are low versus high risk to reoffend.  This goal is accomplished when psychologists base their evaluations on factors or variables related to future criminal behavior, while disregarding irrelevant factors.   One of the poorest predictors of sexual reoffending, yet one of the most commonly referenced in presentence reports, is the issue of whether or not a convicted offender accepts or denies responsibility for their wrongdoing.  As we will see, this factor has been found to be a weak predictor in a few studies, with most research finding the degree of denial is not a significant variable in evaluating risk.

A strategy used in medicine and psychology to increase the ability to detect risk factors for a critical event is to pool the results of comparable studies so that larger sample sizes can be analyzed than would otherwise be available.  This methodology is known as meta analysis.  Four studies have used meta-analytic techniques to measure the relationship between denial and minimization to recidivism.

The first meta analysis that addressed this topic was published in 1998 by Karl Hanson and Monique Bussière, who found that denial and minimization were unrelated to sexual recidivism.  A second meta analysis (Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2005), rectified some of the perceived short- comings of the 1998 analysis, but obtained the same outcome in regard to the presence of denial.

Other studies, using smaller sample sizes have found conflicting results regarding denial as a predictor of recidivism. Nunes et al. (2007) found a small, but statistically significant relationship between denial and recidivism with low risk incest offenders.  No relationship between denial and recidivism was found for high risk offenders, with some subgroups of admitters having slightly higher rates of recidivism.  More recent studies on juveniles have found that offenders who deny responsibility have less recidivism than their admitting counterparts.

In opposition to Nunes et al., Langston et al. (2008), found the opposite results:  That is, denial had predictive validity in only a subset of offenders who were considered high risk on the virtue of other variables.   So while the last two studies appear to contradict each other – Nunes et al. reporting denial is predictive in low risk incest offenders and Langston et al. finding it is predictive of recidivism in high risk offenders — neither found denial to be a strong predictor of recidivism in either of the groups in which a statistically significant relationship was detected.  And of course, the largest meta-analytic studies (i.e., Hanson and colleagues) found it was not a factor, and therefore it never appeared in the previous editions of the risk assessment measures created by their research group.

Given the general finding that denial (at best) has a weak relationship to recidivism, such findings have prompted leading researchers in sex offender treatment to make “recommendations to move away from focusing on denial and minimization in treatment” (e.g., Marshall, Thornton, Marshall, Fernandez, & Mann, 2001; Maruna & Mann, 2006; p. 71).   Some of these commentators have noted that most deniers eventually admit responsibility after beginning treatment.  In any event, Seto (2008, pp 145-146), in his authoritative text on sex offender treatment, asserts that continued belief in this myth muddies the ability to correctly classify offenders into low and high risk categories.

Accordingly, if I am asked by a Court to provide a scientifically-based evaluation of an offender’s risk, I will not provide a favorable forecast for an offender who freely admits responsibility for their past acts (unless they have an absence of other risk factors).  Indeed, their apparent repentance may be nothing more that an effort to work the system, mindful of the weight that decision makers place on “accountability.”  Similarly, I will not downgrade the risk or rehabilitative potential of an offender who denies responsibility (unless they have other risk factors).  Bottom line: Voicing responsibility, or denying one’s responsibility may warrant greater community condemnation following conviction of a sex crime, but should be disregarded in evaluating the risk to public safety or the odds that one will be rehabilitated.

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