'No-brainer to require offender therapy during detention,' says Flemish Justice minister

'No-brainer to require offender therapy during detention,' says Flemish Justice minister
Bruges prison. Credit: Belga

Flanders is looking towards a separate section for sex offenders in prisons, and uniform risk analysis of such offenders in order to minimise relapses of sexual offences.

Belgium as a whole is looking to crack down on sexual violence — it recently modernised its sexual criminal law — and now Flanders is looking to improve prison sentences for convicted sex offenders to lower the rate of recidivism.

“If we leave sex offenders to their own devices during their stay, they pose an equally great - or even greater - threat to society after their detention than before,”  the Flemish Justice Minister Zuhal Demir said. “By closely following them in prison, we prevent recidivism as much as possible. Society as a whole will benefit from this.”

A separate section in prison for convicted sex offenders and an obligatory risk analysis of each sex offender entering prison, followed by obligatory counselling, is the most efficient way of treating sex offenders, according to a study carried out by the University of Brussels (VUB) and the University Forensic Centre.

The research was part of the action plan against sexual violence and the strategic plan for help and service to detainees drawn up by Demir. Dozens of concrete recommendations resulted from the research, which the minister wants to turn into reality.

Psychiatric disorders

Out of the 539 sex offenders that were locked up in Flemish and Brussels prisons last year, 46% of the detainees had received a formal psychiatric diagnosis, of which a quarter even received two or more. Addiction and personality disorders were the most common.

Demir requested the research to understand how such offenders should be dealt with.

“Whether we like it or not, those people will one day be released again,” said Demir. The study's most striking recommendation is the creation of a separate section for sex offenders in prisons, apart from the other prisoners.

Recent research from the United Kingdom showed that a stay in a prison exclusively for sex offenders offers wider and more specialised rehabilitation services, which therefore improve results.

Mandatory treatment

Additionally, Demir also advocates for universal risk analysis of every sex offender to be conducted as early as possible after the committed crime, in order to assess and estimate the risk of reoffending. This analysis must be performed regularly during the judicial procedure, the detention and subsequent follow-ups.

Based on this risk analysis, Demir wants to impose compulsory treatment for sex offenders in prison, which is currently voluntary. She called on her federal colleagues to make treatment mandatory for sex offenders with a high and moderate risk of relapse so that no sex offender is released without treatment.

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“Research shows that sex offenders are 37% less likely to relapse after treatment,” said Demir. “With the available knowledge in my pocket, it is an absolute no-brainer for me to make offender therapy mandatory during detention.”

Experts emphasised in the study that there is sufficient assistance and expertise available, but is insufficiently accessible to detainees. “If we are going to make assistance compulsory, we must of course also ensure that there is sufficient supply," Demir added, calling on substantial investments in treatment for offenders.

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