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Long Version
Section 3: Lecture Content and Teaching Notes
Components of Supervision: Specialized Approaches to Managing Sex Offenders

6 hours, 50 minutes

(20 minutes)


Refer to Handout Symbol Refer to handout: A Cognitive Behavioral Model of the Relapse Process—found with participant materials, Section 3, Long Version of Curriculum
Relapse prevention is the model around which many supervision strategies are designed. Relapse prevention, as defined by G. Marlatt and J. Gordon, is "a self-management program designed to teach individuals who are trying to change their behaviors to identify problems early on and to develop strategies to avoid or cope more effectively with these problems to avoid a relapse."1 Originally conceived as an approach to managing drug- and alcohol-using behavior, it was adapted for the management of sex offending behavior in the 1980s. In many jurisdictions, the relapse prevention model has been adapted to include a partnership between the treatment provider and the criminal justice agency responsible for supervision.

Use Slide # SymbolUse Slide #3: Relapse Prevention
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The relapse prevention model is based on the assumption that human behavior does not just happen. It is a result of a chain of emotions and behaviors about which the offender is continually making choices. In particular, sexual assault requires great planning and thought. If one traces the events that lead up to an offense, it is possible to identify an offense cycle that includes various phases. Feelings of anxiety or boredom may lead an offender to go for a walk. He walks by himself near a schoolyard where he knows that he will find a group of children (a risk factor) and begins to fantasize about abusive behavior (a lapse).

Though that first decision—to go for a walk alone when anxious or bored—seems, upon first inspection, to be a relatively minor and harmless action, it has moved the offender down a very dangerous and risky path towards a relapse. The relapse prevention model aptly describes choices to engage in this kind of risky behavior as "seemingly unimportant decisions," or SUDs.

Use Slide # SymbolUse Slide #4: Officers Can Support Relapse Prevention by:
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Relapse prevention includes teaching offenders about their own relapse cycles, along with the kinds of emotions and feelings that trigger seemingly unimportant decisions. It involves helping offenders develop strategies to respond effectively and safely to triggers that are part of their offense cycle. When an offender's therapist and probation/parole officer are familiar with the offender's cycle, they become valuable sources of external control over his behavior and can communicate with each other regarding the offender's ability to manage his offense cycle. The probation/parole officer can then help the sex offender learn his offense cycle, correct thinking errors, develop coping skills, and begin to forge the internal controls necessary to safely manage his own behavior.

One important aspect of the relapse prevention approach is the identification of risk factors. A risk factor is defined by Georgia Cumming and Maureen Buell as "a set of internal stimuli or external circumstances that threaten offenders' sense of self-control and thus increase the risk of lapse or relapse. Failure to deal successfully with those circumstances will bring offenders one step closer to a potential relapse."2 During relapse prevention therapy, sex offenders learn to identify and understand their own risk factors, and to develop appropriate coping behaviors that can help prevent relapse.


In a later section of the training, we will cover sex offender treatment in more detail. For purposes of this discussion, however, we emphasize relapse prevention as a way to understand offender behavior and as a realistic strategy that includes the offender, his treatment provider, his probation/parole officer, and networks of other family/friends/associates who can assist in breaking his offense cycle, preventing relapse, and protecting potential victims. If we can interrupt the chain of events that lead to sex offense, we can stop sexual victimization before it happens. What follows is a simple version of an offense cycle:

  • Use Slide # SymbolUse Slide #5: Relapse Prevention Cycle
    [Click to Enlarge]

    Pretend-to-be-normal phase. This is when the offender feels good about himself. Although he has problems in his life (perhaps relating to his finances, social life, or job or to alcohol or drug abuse) that sometimes cause him significant distress, he feels as though they are under control.

  • Trigger. A trigger is an external event that begins the sexual abuse cycle and can be almost anything; examples include seeing a young child in his or her bathing suit, becoming angry with a friend or a family member, watching a movie on television that depicts a rape scene, or encountering a former victim.

  • Buildup phase. The buildup phase occurs when nothing is done by the offender, his treatment provider, his supervision agent, or anyone else to address the stress caused by the trigger. Seeing a rape scene in a movie may lead a rapist to begin to fantasize about raping and to begin looking for women who are alone. An argument with a family member might lead a child molester to go for a walk in a park where children are playing. Seeing a child wearing a bathing suit might lead a child molester to begin fantasizing and to go to a school to watch children.

  • Pre-act-out phase. This phase immediately precedes the sexual abuse and is characterized by manipulation and planning on the part of the offender. The offender devises a plan to offend. A rapist may develop a plan to convince a potential victim to leave a bar with him. A child molester may begin to "groom" a young boy he meets in the park by giving him candy and bringing his dog to the park.

  • Act-out/abuse phase. This is the phase in which the sex offense occurs.

    Note: For definitions of the various types of denial, see the CSOM Glossary.

  • Justification phase. During this phase, the offender goes through denial, suppression, false resolve, and false remorse. Several types of denial are important to recognize, including denial of facts, awareness, impact, responsibility, grooming, and sexual intent.3 During suppression, the offender makes a conscientious effort to cover up and forget the abusive behavior. After suppression comes false resolve, an insincere effort on the part of the offender to promises to himself that he will never sexually abuse again. False remorse is an insincere attempt by the offender to show that he feels sorry for the sexual abuse-it is usually self-pity or self-disgust.

Researchers have found that these offending patterns are very often compulsive and lifelong.4 This lifelong propensity to re-offend, combined with the fact that many sex offenders are very high-functioning people who use their adept social skills to groom and gain access to their victims and to conceal their offense behaviors from others, makes them a very challenging population to supervise. Prentky et al. assert that, for many sex offenders, "the victims are their social and sexual companions; the offenses are their social and sexual life."5

Refer to Handout Symbol Refer to handout: A Cognitive-Behavioral Model of the Relapse Process.
Another depiction of the relapse cycle is found in the handout. The cognitive-behavioral model of the relapse process is a simplified version of the cycle that emphasizes the key decision points where, if an offender makes the "right" SUD or uses an adaptive coping response, the outcome can be continued abstinence. Offenders' supervision networks—including the probation or parole officer—can help him employ appropriate adaptive coping mechanisms. This is the underlying principle of relapse prevention as a framework for supervision.