Bench and Allen: Toward a strategic sex offender policy
We read with interest the recent article in The Salt Lake Tribune on Utah's sex offender policy ("Utah sex offender policy in spotlight as numbers soar," Tribune, Sept. 2). Having just completed one of the most extensive longitudinal studies that has ever been done on sex-offender recidivism (how often released offenders return to prison), we believe it is time for Utah policy makers to reconsider their sentencing strategy for sex offenders.
What our research shows is that it is crucial to match the offender's risk of reoffending with the amount of treatment the offender is to receive. This cardinal rule of criminology applies to all categories of offenders. A one-size-fits-all incarceration policy does not meet this objective.
Prison space is expensive and should not be wasted on those who could be better supervised at a lower cost in the community. We believe it's time for Utah's sex offender policy to be based on sound empirical evidence rather than paranoia and hysteria.
Our study followed 389 Utah sex offenders who were incarcerated at the Utah State Prison and then released following their incarceration for an average of 15.76 years. Some offenders were followed for as long as 24 years.
Our ultimate objective was to determine if sex offender behavior was "incurable" or "reappeared" after a short hiatus. Unlike most studies on sex offender recidivism, we measured recidivism using 11 different definitions so as not to miss any form of unlawful behavior.
While our findings are too numerous to discuss in this short commentary, two of the most important are that the overall recidivism rate for Utah sex offenders is about 10 percent, and that using the statistical model we created we could predict with 70 percent accuracy which sex offenders would return to prison.
Our findings on recidivism are consistent with a number of other studies. For example, a United Kingdom study based on 900 randomly selected sex offenders found a reconviction rate of 7 percent. A 2003 study looked at the recidivistic patterns of 9,691 sex offenders released from 15 state prisons and found an overall recidivism rate of 5.3 percent.
An Illinois study tracked 146,918 sex and non-sex offenders arrested between 1990 and 1997. The overall recidivism rate for sex offenders was 6.5 percent.
We have presented our results to numerous professional organizations around the country, including the American Society of Criminology. However, we have found that sex offender research can be "politically problematic."
When we requested permission to publish our findings in a peer-reviewed journal from the Utah Department of Corrections, our request was denied by Mike Haddon, chief deputy of the department.
It was only after the Governor's Office intervened that Haddon did an about face. Our article is scheduled to appear in the December issue of "Prison Journal."
We find it ironic that the department routinely pays allegiance to the notion of "evidence-based corrections," yet refuses to allow access of information to the scientific and correctional communities that are working to find solutions to the overpopulation problems in prisons and jails throughout the country.
State politics aside, what new graduate students in criminology are being taught today is the importance of concepts such as risk/needs. In short, what mounting evidence suggests is that treatment resources should only be expended on offenders who need them.
More important, studies done by researchers in 1979, 1980 and 2000 demonstrate that when offenders who are low risk for recidivism are forced to participate in intense treatment activities, their recidivism rate increases. In comparison, low-risk offenders who received minimal levels of treatment showed reduced levels of recidivism. Conversely, high-risk offenders who are exposed to low levels of treatment showed substantially higher rates of recidivism.
Lawrence L. Bench, Ph.D., is an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Utah Department of Sociology where he teaches classes in criminology and criminal justice. He is also a consultant for the National Institute of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Terry Allen, Ph.D. is an adjunct assistant professor at Weber State University Department of Sociology where he teaches classes in social statistics, research methods, deviant behavior and social control and criminology.