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Utah Sex Offender Prison Population Grows under Harsher Laws while Treatment Programs Lag

Utah Sex Offender Prison Population Grows under Harsher Laws while Treatment Programs Lag

by Mark Wilson and Christopher Zoukis

Fueled by the notion “once a predator, always a predator,” harsher laws have flooded Utah state prisons with sex offenders sentenced to longer and longer prison terms, while funding for sex offender treatment programs has remained static. The dilemma has state lawmakers in a bind, caught between finding ways to reduce the state’s growing prison population and still taking the politically popular approach of appearing to be tough on sex offenders by locking them up with only limited access to treatment.

The eventual result, warned one member of Utah’s Board of Pardons and Parole, will be releasing everyone except murderers and sex offenders due to a lack of space in prison for anyone else.

According to research compiled by the Pew Charitable Trusts, sex offenders now make up one-third of Utah’s prison population – the single largest group of prisoners in state prisons, and nearly double the number of sex offenders imprisoned since 1996. Yet during that same time period, the state’s $1 million annual allocation for its sex offender treatment unit containing 200 beds has remained unchanged.

In 2012, Utah lawmakers passed tough new laws that included mandatory 5-, 10- and 25-years-to-life sentences for child rape. They also imposed harsh penalties on other child-related sex crimes, including aggravated sexual abuse of a child and sexual abuse of a child, now the top two offenses committed by Utah state prisoners. Both were classified as felonies under the new laws.

The harsh sentences, which have helped to fill up the prison system, exist despite data which shows that 78% of sex offenders in Utah had no prior convictions.

“Our culture has a very strict credo, a moral sense, of what is appropriate sexually and what is not appropriate sexually,” said state Rep. Eric Hutchings. “That may be why we incarcerate a little bit more.”

Hutchings noted that a belief that sex offender treatment is ineffective has contributed to the trend of imposing tougher sentences. “The mind-set for a long time has been, what are we going to get by putting this money into treatment? Why not focus instead on mandatory minimum sentences and keeping these people locked away?” he added.

In reality, however, sex offenders are less likely to reoffend than non-sex offenders, according to a 2003 Bureau of Justice Statistics report. Just 5.3% of all sex offenders – and an even smaller 3.3% of child molesters – were rearrested for a sex crime within three years of being released, the report found.

Similarly, a Utah study determined that 20% of sex offenders who completed treatment returned to prison within one year, compared to 42% who did not complete treatment. And the majority of both groups were reincarcerated due to parole violations, not for committing new crimes.

Investing in treatment and supervision resources is critical, said Jonathan Ririe, a Utah psychologist who treats sex offenders in the community. “The reality is we are talking about a very large group of people at the prison who are someday going to get released,” he noted.

“Our statutory scheme makes it so that sex offenders go to prison,” Salt Lake City-based defense attorney Mark Moffat told a meeting of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice sentencing subcommittee. “And they end up serving just a ton of time where we have an excellent prison-based sex offender treatment program that works in its ability to combat recidivism, but there’s been no funding for that for years.”

In 2014, the Commission presented 18 recommendations for the Utah legislature to consider with respect to reducing the rate of the state’s prison population growth, but none had anything to do with how the state handles sex offenders – the largest single category of prisoners. The problem, critics said, is that Utah lawmakers who just a few years ago passed tough new laws against sex crimes don’t want to appear to be backpedaling by devoting more resources to treatment, despite evidence that shows treatment is effective.

“We’ve now had enough time to track these other programs around the nation and know if these programs are going to make a difference,” said Hutchings. “And the answer is yes, they will. Now it’s a matter of determining the way to do it to have the safest results for the citizens of Utah.”

“It’s a difficult policy area, and one that everyone seems to have some type of opinion on and thought on,” stated Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice executive director Ron Gordon. “As we approach that population of offenders, I hope our approach would be the same as with all other populations. There are a number of different considerations that have to take place, and I hope we don’t shy away from any of them just because it might be tough.”

Utah’s prison-based sex offender treatment is an 18-month program with a limited number of beds. There is often a waiting list and, in some cases, offenders may be kept in prison longer in order to complete treatment.

“That’s been a constant, really, for every public hearing and in the more targeted hearings with prosecutors and victims’ advocates, prisoner advocates, everyone,” said Gordon. “They’re all advocating for increased treatment opportunities.”

Devoting more resources to treatment, however, will not stem the influx of sex offenders facing longer prison terms under the harsher laws, warned Clark Harms, a member of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole.

“I’m not saying that we ought not to punish,” he told the subcommittee. “But I’m saying that [sentences of] 25 to life, or even a presumption of 15 years to life on regular first-degree felony sex offenses, you’re going to have to, eventually, the board is going to get to a point where we have to start letting everyone else out because all we have room for are murderers and sex offenders.”

“If that’s where we want to be,” Harms added, “fine.”