A psychologist who treated Daniel Morcombe’s killer has given an insight into the mind of a serial child sex offender and how the prison system attempt to rehabilitate them.
Brett Peter Cowan was sentenced to life in jail and will serve a minimum of 20 years for the murder of the Sunshine Coast teenager in 2003.
Professor Stephen Smallbone treated Cowan in the Queensland prison system in the late 1990s.
He has written books on preventing child sexual abuse and is the director of Griffith University’s Youth Forensic Service, which treats and assesses young sex offenders.
Professor Smallbone says he was working for Queensland Corrective Services to treat convicted sex offenders when Cowan was transferred from an Alice Springs prison to a Queensland jail in the late 1990s.
He says the treatment of such offenders in prison is aimed at reducing the risk of them reoffending.
“There are a wide variety of people who commit sex offences and I think one of the challenges of those programs is to cater to that diversity,” he said.
Tough to predict who will reoffend
“There’s a well-accepted principle in offender rehabilitation called the risk principle, which really means that the best outcomes are from programs that target the highest-risk offenders.
“So really these programs are generally designed to target the high-risk people.
“The evidence around those programs suggests they can be effective, that they are, in fact, effective when they’re well designed and well implemented.
“But there are never any guarantees for individuals, and when you’re dealing with high-risk offenders in the first place there’s bound to be some recidivism among that group.
“The difficulty is predicting who among that group is and isn’t likely to go on to commit further offences.”
Professor Smallbone says sex offenders often display no observable behavioural features apart from the offences they commit.
“In fact for many sex offenders, the most unusual thing about them is that they have committed sex offences,” he said.
“We know that in retrospect, but it’s obviously very difficult to know in prospect.”
He says the differences between sex offenders is often exaggerated.
“There are some differences in profile, in terms of age particularly, but other than that there are some clear similarities as well,” Professor Smallbone said.
‘The more persistent, the more versatile’
“For example, sex offenders as a group, including child sex offenders, are about twice as likely to have previous convictions for non-sex offences as they are to have previous convictions for sex offences.
“In fact they’re twice as likely to reoffend non-sexually as they are sexually.
“Generally, crime is a versatile occupation. The more serious and more persistent the offender, generally the more versatile they are.
“It’s common, particularly for people who come to prison after having already been convicted previously … to find a long history of problem behaviour that stretches sometimes back into their teens and perhaps even their childhood.”
Professor Smallbone says there is much to be gained from early intervention with potential sex offenders.
“It’s not always an exclusive set of problems focused on sexual behaviour … there can be other problems as well,” he said.
“There are many, many opportunities over the course of an individual’s life to observe these things.
“There are opportunities in schools, the kids who are in trouble in schools, there are often opportunities with health services and other counselling support services and so on.
“So I think one of the important lessons in these kinds of cases, when we’re dealing with the most serious and persistent offenders, I think we need to be thinking about investing more in early intervention services.”