Utah sex offender policy in spotlight as numbers soar
A dramatic increase in the number of sex offenders incarcerated in Utah over nearly two decades is raising questions about how the state deals with such crimes and concerns about whether all inmates are able to get needed treatment before they return to their communities.
The number of sex offenders in state custody has more than doubled to 2,194 or 31 percent of the prison population since 1996, the last year Utah lawmakers approved an increase in treatment funding. Although Utah's incarceration rate is significantly lower than that of other Western states and the U.S., it leads surrounding states when it comes to the percentage of prison inmates who are sex offenders.
One reason for that: Lawmakers have taken a tough stance on sex offenses, setting stiff penalties, such as a law passed in 2008 that set a 25-years-to-life penalty for child rape.
"Our culture has a very strict credo, a moral sense, of what is appropriate sexually and what is not appropriate sexually," said Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns and a member of the Criminal Justice Appropriations subcommittee. "That may be why we incarcerate a little bit more."
The state's approach also has historically been shaded by the view that "once a predator, always a predator" a misconception that may finally be poised to shift with the accumulation of evidence that shows treatment works, Hutchings said.
"The discussion is not over, but it's happening in earnest," Hutchings said. "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."
The numbers reflect that philosophy of warehousing inmates.
Today, more sex offenders in Utah are sent to prison rather than placed on probation, and they serve longer sentences. In 2012, for example, 92 percent of first-degree felony sex offenders went to prison, up from 72 percent in 1988. During that period, the length of time served has doubled.
Sex offenders "are going to have longer length of stays, go to prison at a higher rate and thus make up a greater portion of our prison population," said Jacey Skinner, director of the Utah Sentencing Commission.
Utah inmates convicted of first-degree felony sex offenses who were released from prison during the past five years had, on average, served 7Â½ years. But some serve far longer. Michael Deporto, a child sex offender, is scheduled to be released this fall after spending nearly 20 years in prison. There are 71 first-degree felony sex offenders who have received natural life sentences from the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole a number that will likely increase since some inmates in that category have not yet had rehearings, according to Steve Gehrke, Corrections spokesman.
Still, "The reality is we are talking about a very large group of people at the prison who are some day going to get released," said Jonathan Ririe, a Utah psychologist who works with sex offenders in the community. And that makes investing in treatment, as well as supervision outside of prison, critical, he added.
But the number of treatment slots for sex offenders 200 at the Utah State Prison and the San Juan County jail, which operates a program for state inmates has remained unchanged.
For the past 17 years, the state has allocated $1 million a year for treatment of incarcerated sex offenders, a sum that also covers personnel costs.
With limited slots, entry into the 18-month program is sometimes delayed and may result in an inmate being incarcerated longer or, in the case of those charged with lesser-degree felonies and serving shorter sentences, leaving prison due to terminating rather than being paroled before completing a program. Some inmates are removed from programs because of rule violations, thus interfering with their ability to finish treatment. Those inmates are typically required to complete treatment as a condition of parole.
At a Prison Relocation Authority Committee hearing in July, Utah Department of Corrections Director Rollin Cook said the fact that some inmates are leaving prison without completing a program "scares me a little bit."
"I don't know about you, but that's not enough," Cook said of the available treatment beds.
It may become a more acute problem in the future as officials try to schedule treatment for inmates with lengthier sentences to coincide with parole and termination dates.
"A lot more offenders are coming to prison with longer sentences," said Jim Hatch, spokesman for the parole board. "Since we don't want them participating in treatment until there is a possibility they could be released, they may wait a long time before they get into treatment. A lot of offenders are just beginning long-term sentences, so they won't be involved in treatment for a long time."
Camille Anthony, a member of the prison committee and pro-tem member of the pardons board, said she won't set a release date unless a sex offender has had a shot at treatment. That's because numerous national studies as well as evaluations in Utah show that treatment reduces recidivism of sex offenders.
One Utah analysis of inmates who completed treatment showed about 20 percent returned to prison within a year, compared with 42 percent of those who did not complete treatment. In both groups, most offenders returned because of parole violations rather than because they committed new crimes.
A 2003 Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that sex offenders were less likely than non-sex offenders to be rearrested for any crime. That report also found that 5.3 percent of all sex offenders were rearrested for a sex crime within three years of being released. The percentage was even lower 3.3 percent for child molesters.
Ririe said it is "frustrating" that Utah's approach has been to continually adopt more stringent sentencing guidelines that lump sex offenders together rather than adopting a system that appropriately categorizes offenders by risk factors and allows judges and the parole board a greater role in assessing them individually.
"The Board of Pardons is a very cautious and reasonable group of individuals who do not make rash decisions," Ririe said. "If they recognize someone is dangerous, they are going to hold them longer. By [the Legislature] taking the ability to make judgments from judges and [the board], their hands are tied."
First District Judge Kevin K. Allen made a similar point Thursday during a prison relocation committee meeting. Allen said criminal-court filings are flat, yet Utah's prison population continues to increase which he attributed in part to lawmakers' decision to increase the severity of criminal penalties, Utah's indeterminate-sentencing scheme and the lack of alternatives to incarceration for some offenders including sex offenders.
With sex offenders, "most of those guys are going to prison," Allen said. "When we think of sex crimes, we think of the most heinous [offenses]. But there is a huge spectrum of these things. Take a 20-year-old having sex with his 17-year-old girlfriend. He is probably going to prison because I don't know where else to send him."
Without minimizing the huge impact such crimes have on victims, in many instances the behavior doesn't define who the offender is, Ririe added.
"From a society perspective, we are very quick to lump these guys together in terms of black and white. They committed an offense, so they are all bad," he said. "The fact is, the vast majority are husbands, fathers, brothers, grandfathers, neighbors people who, up to the moment the offense was discovered, were generally well-respected by people around them."
Lawmaker Hutchings said the accumulation of evidence during the past decade that shows treatment works is likely to result in alternative options and expansion of specialized programs for sex offenders, particularly for juveniles. For adults, implementing new programs "may be more complicated because more parts [of the corrections system] are in flux right now."
That said, "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," Hutchings said. "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."