« Do prosecutors gone bad often get breaks at sentencing? | Main | New NYCLU report on Rockefeller drug laws »

March 11, 2009

"Europeans Debate Castration of Sex Offenders"

The title of this article is the title of this interesting piece in today's New York Times.  The piece is a must-read for anyone focused on sex offender law and policy, in part because of one startling piece of (old) data noted in the article.  Here are some excerpts (with a few paragraphs re-ordered):

Whether castration can help rehabilitate violent sex offenders has come under new scrutiny after the Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee last month called surgical castration “invasive, irreversible and mutilating” and demanded that the Czech Republic stop offering the procedure to violent sex offenders. Other critics said that castration threatened to lead society down a dangerous road toward eugenics.

The Czech Republic has allowed at least 94 prisoners over the past decade to be surgically castrated. It is the only country in Europe that uses the procedure for sex offenders. Czech psychiatrists supervising the treatment — a one-hour operation that involves removal of the tissue that produces testosterone — insist that it is the most foolproof way to tame sexual urges in dangerous predators suffering from extreme sexual disorders....

Poland is expected to become the first nation of the European Union to give judges the right to impose chemical castration on at least some convicted pedophiles, using hormonal drugs to curb sexual appetite; the impetus for the change was the arrest of a 45-year-old man in September who had fathered two children by his young daughter.  Spain, after a convicted pedophile killed a child, is considering plans to offer chemical castration.

Last year, the governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, signed legislation requiring courts to order chemical castration for offenders convicted of certain sex crimes a second time.... Several states, including Texas, Florida and California, now allow or mandate chemical castration for certain convicted sex offenders....

Dr. Martin Holly, a leading sexologist and psychiatrist who is director of the Psychiatric Hospital Bohnice in Prague, said none of the nearly 100 sex offenders who had been physically castrated had committed further offenses.  A Danish study of 900 castrated sex offenders in the 1960s suggested the rate of repeat offenses dropped after surgical castration to 2.3 percent from 80 percent. 

But human rights groups say that such studies are inconclusive because they rely on self-reporting by sex offenders.  Other psychiatric experts argue that sexual pathology is in the brain and cannot be cured by surgery.  

I find both remarkable and annoying that the only "study" on this topic cited in this Times article comes from the 1960s.  Can we imagine any other field in which leading research in the field is nearly half a century old?  Of course, I am sure there are more modern studies that the Times might have mentioned, though I am not confident that there have been many (any?) rigorous modern assessments of sex offender castration in the United States, even though chemical castration as a form of alternative punishment has been considered (and used?) widely throughout the nation for well over a decade.

I often stress to my students that modern research on sentencing and punishment is often incomplete and partisan, in part because few people with the interest and energy and money to conduct research in this field are willing to explore ideas and data that may not confirm their pre-existing beliefs.  Though I usually stress this point in conjunction with death penalty research, the apparent lack of data concerning forms of sex offender castration likely also reflects these problematic dynamics.

March 11, 2009 at 10:27 AM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference "Europeans Debate Castration of Sex Offenders":


I wish people would stop using the term "chemical castration." The treatment that term refers to is an entirely different matter from surgical removal of organs. The term ties together two different issues that ought to be considered entirely separately.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Mar 11, 2009 11:37:36 AM

Sigh. Pedophilia is neither a chemical disorder nor a psychological one; it is a social disorder.

As for Doug's comment about studies it is right on. The biggest problem is that when a scientific study shows information that the public doesn't want to hear, the shiat hits the fan. Look at the hysterical reaction to the recent study about man-boy pedophilia. While that study has problems, none of the criticism was directed at the actual scientific merits of the study. Instead, people went off because how could anyone in their right mind suggest that pedophilia might actually be beneficial.

My point with this posting is not to argue one way or the other on that point. But I would suggest that for most people the subject produces a visceral response that has nothing to do with anything other than an excuse to mouth off. The old saw about "my mind's made up, don't confuse me with the facts" applies to everything (on both sides) of the pedophilia debate.

If you believe, as I do, that psychology actually is a science (or at least strives to be one) stay away from the topic of pedophilia. Rational discussions are off the table from the git go.

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 11, 2009 11:45:05 AM

There are papers that at least summarize the research as recent as 1997 (Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, v25 n3-4 p1-18 1997) - http://eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/custom/portlets/recordDetails/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=EJ556575&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=EJ556575

Much of the leading work, was combined in a meta-analysis by J. Michael Bailey and Aaron S. Greenberg cited (along with some of the other leading studies and some recent anecdotes) by the law review article by chemical castration opponent John F. Stinneford, "Incapacitation through Maiming: Chemical Castration, the Eighth Amendment, and the Denial of Human Dignity," University of St. Thomas Law Journal, 2006, According to Stinneford:

"[S]urgical removal of the testes has the effect of eliminating virtually all testosterone from the system, and thus disabling the sex drive.90 During the Nazi era, the German government surgically castrated all sex offenders convicted of certain crimes.91 A follow-up study of this group of offenders indicated a recidivism rate of 2.3%.92 Similarly, in the 1970s, the Federal Republic of Germany permitted sex offenders to agree to surgical castration in return for reduced sentences.93 An eleven-year follow-up study was conducted on two groups of offenders: those who underwent the treatment, and those who initially volunteered, but backed out.94 The recidivism rate for the castrated group was 3%, as compared to 46% for the uncastrated group.95 Other European countries employed surgical castration on sex offenders during the middle decades of the twentieth century, with similar levels of success.96

Chemical castration via MPA seems to hold the promise of reducing recidivism to the same extent as surgical castration, since it, too, drastically reduces testosterone levels. There is some evidence that this is the case; for example some clinicians have reported that paraphiliacs who underwent chemical castration reported a significant reduction in sexual fantasies and sexual urges.97 But the data does not clearly indicate that these reductions translate into a longterm reduction in recidivism. Studies of the effect of chemical castration on paraphiliacs have been largely characterized by small sample size, lack of controls, and short follow-up periods.98 Moreover, these studies have reported a wide variety of recidivism rates, ranging from 0% to 83%.99 Indeed, the preliminary report of results from Oregon’s program of mandatory chemical castration has so far demonstrated no differences in recidivism between offenders who underwent chemical castration and those who did not.100 Several studies have indicated that cognitive-behavioral therapy is as effective as chemical castration in preventing recidivism.101

96 See id. at 1230 (noting that twenty studies of surgically castrated sex offenders, which collectively covered approximately 5000 offenders, indicated an average recidivism rate of 3%); Rösler & Witztum, supra note 37, at 43 (“Among a series of 11 reports from Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Holland, Switzerland and Czechoslovakia, the mean recidivism rate for a total of 3589 castrated men was 2.2%”).
97 See Stone, et al., supra note 53, at 97 (Noting reported “reductions in waking-time preoccupation with sexual fantasies, number of morning erections per week, number of ejaculations per week, plasma T levels, and frequency of paraphilic behaviors.”)
98 See Maletzky & Field, supra note 44, at 398-400 (describing studies).
99 See id.; Rösler & Witztum, supra note 37, at 47 (noting that “[i]n a recent review that summarized 334 patients from 11 studies recidivism during MPA treatment ranged from 3 to 83%, with a mean of 27%).
100 Maletzky & Field, supra note 44, at 406.
101 See, e.g., Gordon C. Nagayama Hall, Sexual Offender Recidivism Revisited: A Meta-Analysis of Recent Treatment Studies, 63 J. Consulting and Clinical Psychology 802, 807 (1995) (noting that cognitive-behavioral therapy and hormonal treatment programs – i.e., chemical castration – achieved a reduction in recidivism of approximately 30%); Wood, et al., supra note 46, at 36 (summarizing results of several studies indicating similar success rates for cognitive-behavioral therapy and hormonal therapy)."

The Bailey and Greenberg meta-analysis also notes that the highest recidivism rate in the study involved a country where a very small number of offenders who were surgically castrated went on to be injected with testosterone.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Mar 11, 2009 4:39:18 PM

I am going to try and be as kind as I possibly can be ohwilleke: those studies are garbage. And meta-analysis built upon garbage is nothing but the insistence that if one amasses enough garbage somehow or another the glinting of the light will make it seem like a diamond.

There is not room enough here to pick those studies apart, suffice it to say that when a person finds what they seek that's not science. And the mere fact that they looked at Nazi era studies should be your first clue. Oh, that's a random sample right there (dripping sarcasm). Piling bad data on bad data does not give good data, it just gives more bad data.

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 11, 2009 6:14:27 PM

Daniel, do you mean the Rind study? If so, that wasn't actually a "man-boy pedophilia" study, though Dr. Laura Schlessinger painted it that way. It is possible the revolt against gay marriage persists because of this reaction, though no one would frankly admit it.

On castration, we've been there, done that. (The Most Critical Option: Sex Offenses and Castration in San Diego, 1938-1975 by Mark Linsky )

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 11, 2009 7:14:06 PM

Your article is very informative and the use of graphics adds to understanding the process. I think some of your sentences are too long, and a few minor commas are missing. You did very well for your first blog. When I write my first blog, I hope it is as readable as yours.

Posted by: Oil Drilling Chemicals | Dec 27, 2010 5:21:51 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB