OBJECTIVE: Recent legislation in several states providing for civil commitment and preventive detention of sexually violent persons has stirred legal, clinical, and public policy controversies. The mandate for psychiatric evaluation and treatment has an impact on public mental health systems, requiring clinicians and public administrators to direct attention to treatment options. It is a common view that no treatments work for disorders involving sexual aggression. The authors examine this assumption by reviewing research on the effectiveness of treatment for adult male sex offenders. METHODS: MEDLINE was searched for key reviews and papers published during the years 1970 through 1998 that presented outcome data for sex offenders in treatment programs, individual case reports, and other clinically and theoretically important information. RESULTS: Although rigorous research designs are difficult to achieve, studies comparing treated and untreated sex offenders have been done. Measurement of outcome is flawed, with recidivism rates underestimating actual recurrence of the pathological behavior. Outcome research suggests a reduction in recidivism of 30 percent over seven years, with comparable effectiveness for hormonal and cognitive-behavioral treatments. Institutionally based treatment is associated with poorer outcome than outpatient treatment, and the nature of the offender's criminal record is an important prognostic factor. CONCLUSIONS: Although treatment does not eliminate sexual crime, research supports the view that treatment can decrease sex offense and protect potential victims. However, given the limitations in scientific knowledge and accuracy of outcome data, as well as the potential high human costs of prognostic uncertainty, any commitment to a social project substituting treatment for imprisonment of sexual aggressors must be accompanied by vigorous research.
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