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Lifetime Supervision or Lifetime Incarceration for Colorado Sex Offenders?

by G.A. Bowers

Colorado has one of the toughest sex offender laws in the nation, according to University of Denver law professor Karen Steinhauser. Under the 1998 Lifetime Supervision of Sex Offenders Act (Act), over 800 sex offenders have been incarcerated. Of the 182 who have met the parole board through September 2005, two were paroled, both in 2005.

Under the Act, class 2, 3, and 4 sex offenders are sentenced to a set minimum prison or probationary term and a maximum term of life in prison. They may be sentenced, for example, to a term of two years to life. Few understand the gravity of the sentence, hearing only the ?two years? part and either not hearing or not understanding the ?to life? part as the judge pronounces sentence. They arrive at the prison gates believing they will be released in two years. Then they learn the awful truth: that they very well may spend the rest of their lives in prison.

Such sentences grant broad discretion to the Colorado parole board, which is loath to parole any prisoner. Al Stanley, parole board chairman, justifies the low parole rate by claiming sex offenders have not completed treatment and that prison therapists have not recommended their release. State Senator Norma Anderson, a supporter of the Act, agrees that prisoners are denied parole because they have not received treatment. The November 1, 2005 Colorado Division of Criminal Justice (DCJ) report, Lifetime Supervision of Sex Offenders Annual Report, noted that only 101 of the 800 sex offenders under the Act were in treatment on October 13, 2005.

Carolyn Turner, on the contrary, reported in a letter to the Rocky Mountain News that therapists of the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP) told a public meeting a different story in early 2006. The therapists claimed that approximately 50 prisoners had completed their sentences and the treatment program and had been recommended for parole or community corrections. All 50 were denied release by the parole board.

The therapists? claim, however, was belied by the DCJ report, which reported that only 14 prisoners had met the treatment criteria for progression to community placement. The parole board?s blame-shifting was contradicted by the DCJ?s report that the most frequent deferral reasons cited by the parole board in lifetime supervision cases were ?aggravating factors? and ?risk control.? ?Sex offender treatment needs? was sixth on the list.

Proponents of lifetime supervision believe that it will eventually lead to a safer society and actually free up prison beds by forcing prisoners to participate in treatment programs. Indeed, the DCJ report showed that 52 percent of parole-eligible prisoners under the Act were treatment-compliant, compared with 23 percent of other sex offenders.
Jill McFadden, Colorado Sex Offender Management Board (SOMB) manager, points out that sex offenders in treatment are less likely to reoffend. Senator Anderson maintains that sex offenders who are closely monitored after release are also less likely to reoffend. Their hope is that with treatment and supervision, sex offenders may safely return to society. Anderson noted that the Act was not intended to lengthen prison sentences.

Public defender and SOMB member Bill Martinez questions the parole board?s faith in treatment, ?If it?s working so well, why are so few of the life timers being paroled?? The prisoners themselves are disheartened by the parole board?s actions. ?It was worded ?lifetime supervision,? but technically it?s lifetime incarceration,? one said. Many wonder why they should bother with the difficult and painful treatment if it will not lead to parole.

The indeterminate sentences are further lengthened by a 2003 law that eliminates good time for sex offenders under the Act. While programs-compliant sex offenders may still receive meritorious earned time reductions of up to ten days per month, the loss of good time, which reduces a minimum sentence by 50 percent, effectively doubles the minimum time they must serve. Worse, a 2003 Colorado Attorney General opinion allowed the CDOC to apply the change retroactively to 1998, shocking hundreds of sex offenders with doubled minimums, contrary to Lynce v. Mathis, 117 S.Ct. 891 (1997).

Ironically, the Act?s Legislative declaration section acknowledges that while sex offenders cannot be cured, ?keeping all sex offenders in lifetime incarceration imposes an unacceptably high cost in both state dollars and loss of human potential.? The Colorado parole board and the SOTP therapists apparently are not on the same page as the Colorado General Assembly.

Sources: The [Colorado Springs] Gazette, Rocky Mountain News, Colorado Division of Criminal Justice

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