Volume 9, Number 4 October 19, 2001

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Olver designs sex offender recidivism risk scale

From left, U of S PhD student Mark Olver explains aspects of his ‘violence risk scale’ for assessing sex offenders’ likelihood of re-offending, to psychology students — and twin brothers — Shane and Shawn Mamer.

By Elizabeth Frogley
SPARK Writer

A University of Saskatchewan PhD project may help psychologists identify sex offenders who are likely to re-offend.

Mark Olver, a doctoral student in psychology, has developed a “violence risk scale” for sex offenders. The scale builds on the work of his supervisor, psychology professor Stephen Wong, who developed a scale to determine whether violent offenders are likely to re-offend, but found the scale ineffective in assessing sex offenders.

Olver’s scale takes into account the sex offender’s past and criminal history, but also looks at measures that change over time such as lifestyle, sexual functioning, psychiatric functioning, impulse control, commitment to treatment, and the acknowledgement and understanding of problems.

Currently, Olver is testing the scale by assessing former inmates at the Regional Psychiatric Centre (RPC) in Saskatoon, based on their records. He then determines whether their risk rating accurately predicts whether they’ve re-offended.

Correctional Services of Canada has expressed interest in adopting the scale for its National Sex Offender Program, provided the evaluation of the scale shows it to be effective.     

Olver, who works with sex offenders at the RPC, recently received a SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) fellowship for his research.

The scale is used at the beginning of treatment to pinpoint areas in which a patient needs to improve. At the end of treatment, the scale is re-applied to determine how much the person has improved and how close their responses are to normal, which provides a final risk rating.

Olver says it’s unlikely anyone could fake improvement. “It’s possible for people to fake improvement, but very hard over a long period of time,” he says. “There are some very manipulative guys in the system, but even for them it’s very hard to maintain a façade of healthiness.”

Olver has high praise for the RPC program which has a low recidivism rate. While about 33 per cent of untreated sex offenders re-offend, graduates of the RPC program have a 14.5-per-cent recidivism rate. Untreated sex offenders also commit a greater number of re-offences.

He notes there’s a waiting list for the RPC’s eight-month program. Olver says inmates apply for the treatment for a range of reasons.

“There are guys who just want to get out of jail sooner and there are guys who do want to change and feel enormous remorse,” he says. As well, some offenders are referred to the program because they’re scheduled for release.

Treatment at RPC consists mainly of group therapy, with patients meeting in groups of 10 to 15 to deal with various problems.

The goal of one group is to correct the dysfunctional attitudes sex offenders use to legitimize their behavior.

This group uses a cognitive behavioral model of therapy — a highly structured approach that aims to change distorted attitudes and problem behavior by identifying and replacing inaccurate beliefs and reinforcing reality.

Participants also attend a victim empathy group, and a relationships group to teach them how to have normal, non-exploitive relationships.

They also take part in an anger management group to learn to express their anger in healthy ways. Some participate in assertiveness training. This may sound strange, but Olver says that child abusers are often passive and socially inept. The assertiveness group can teach them to express their anger constructively so as not to violate others’ rights.

A disclosure group allows participants to tell their life story to understand how they’ve ended up in prison. Finally, there is a group for inmates to develop a crime cycle, so they can see what causes them to offend, and come up with strategies to prevent relapses.

“This therapy is the best we have right now,” Olver says. “It can always be better, and hopefully the scale will be a tool for therapists to improve treatment.”

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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