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A summary of the new Council of Europe recommendations on the assessment, treatment and reintegration of people accused or convicted of a sexual offence.

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Refining processes in policy & practice

The latest in the probation inspectorate’s commendable Academic Insights series (and the first publication of 2022) is titled: Refining processes in policy and practice in working with people accused or convicted of a sexual offence. Written by Kieran F. McCartan, Professor of Criminology at the University of the West of England in Bristol, summarises the new Council of Europe recommendations on the assessment, treatment and reintegration of people accused or convicted of a sexual offence. 

The paper outlines the current landscape on sexual abuse research, its evolving nature, the challenges faced, and how the recommendations align to current thinking about desistance, life course perspectives, trauma-informed practice, Epidemiological Criminology (EpiCrim) approaches, strengths-based models, restorative justice, professional practice and community inclusion. 

Professor McCartan highlights the importance of a holistic, rounded, person-centred, multi-agency approach, with individuals being offered interventions that are fit for purpose. He advocates the adoption of a more evidence-informed and structured approach to managing people accused or convicted of a sexual offence.

A global issue

Professor McCartan starts by setting out the complex nature of sexual abuse and how it is affected by cultural beliefs and attitudes. He raises a number of key topics including the definition of sexual crimes, the sentencing of sexual offences, victim support and the assessment, treatment and the reintegration of people convicted of a sexual offence. He goes on to chronicle recent “theoretical, empirical and practice shifts in the way that we understand as well as respond to sexual abuse”.

McCartan summarises developments in desistance theory and other disciplines and presents an Epidemiological Criminology framework which he says “allows for a multi-disciplinary approach that ties together existing and emerging theories of sexual offending in a way that opens funding opportunities, practice conversations, and policy developments beyond criminal justice”.  The EpiCrim framework also opens up the potential to develop a strategic approach towards preventing sexual abuse. You can see this model reproduced in the graphic below.

The Council of Europe Recommendations

The impetus behind the new recommendations was a growing awareness of the that there was a great degree of international variability in the policies and procedures surrounding the assessment, treatment and integration of people convicted of a sexual offence back into the community. The Committee for Penological Co-operation decided that a series of recommendations based on research and good professional practice, as well as new and existing policy, was required to harmonise the approach across Europe. There are five overarching principles underpinning the recommendations:

  1. Risk levels and risk management. (It is the risk that the person poses that needs to be considered and not the actual offence that they have committed).
  2. Person-centred approach. A holistic approach which balances punishment, rehabilitation and public protection.
  3. Professional practice. Continuous training for staff.
  4. Multi-disciplinary approaches. Enabling a comprehensive response to complex issues.
  5. Evidence-based practice. Particularly important for risk assessment and resultant intervention.

The Council of Europe document contains 34 recommendations across eight different sections that go into detail regarding good practice across the process of assessing, treating and reintegrating people convicted of a sexual offence. The explanatory notes accompanying the recommendations provide in-depth analysis and considerations for the individual recommendations and their implementation.

Professor McCartan provides an overview of the eight sections on pages 10-11 of this Academic Insight. He regards the UK as adhering to most of the best practice recommendations but argues that we need to develop and do more work around the role of restorative justice when working with people accused or convicted of a sexual offence as well as continue to develop policy and practice linked to sexual abuse harm reduction processes.


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