The crux of the emotional discussion about sex offenders always comes back to this: Is the adage "Once a sex offender, always a sex offender" true?

After doing time in prison, completing treatment, being on parole, will a perpetrator victimize again?

To properly evaluate that question, one must wade through conflicting data from corrections departments, government, academics, law enforcement and a host of anecdotal evidence from police, therapists and others.

Most incarcerated sex offenders will eventually find their way back into the community where the common perception is they will rape another woman or molest another child.

"It may be harsh to say, (but) when a sex offender dies, that's when he's rehabilitated," says a former sex crimes investigator and 20-year veteran police officer. "They say they can't help it. That may be true. That's why they'll never be rehabilitated."

Larry Bench, a Utah Department of Corrections research consultant, disagrees.

"A lot of people will argue that sex offenders basically commit tons of sex offenses and have very, very high recidivism rates and are basically incurable." That, he said, is "totally inaccurate. The recidivism rate is considerably lower than most people think it is."

Harold Blakelock has devoted more than a decade to working with sex offenders at the Utah State Prison.

"Most people have the belief that sex offenders continue to reoffend all the time. Our numbers show that's not the case," Blakelock said. "At least they don't get caught."

Bench, also a University of Utah criminology professor, conducted what he calls one of the most comprehensive studies on convicted sex offenders.

In the study of 389 Utah prison inmates tracked as far back as 25 years, he found 7.2 percent were convicted of new sex crimes.

"Our fear of sex offenders has increased substantially, largely unfounded, quite frankly," Bench said.

Opinions vary

But Heather Stringfellow, executive director of the Rape Recovery Center and a former Salt Lake police sex crimes investigator, said any study based on conviction rates is flawed.

"The one thing we know is that they get better at not getting caught. I am very suspect of any 8 percent recidivism. In my experience they have been doing it a lot before they are charged or caught."

What actually happens, Stringfellow says, is that very few victims of sex abuse report, not all of those get investigated, not all of those get presented to prosecutors for charging, not all of those get filed. Many charges that are filed are dismissed and still more are pleaded down.

"The system is flawed. Until we can raise the bar to convict all those who offend, you can't use those numbers, " she said.

Because sex offenses are such an underreported crime, Utah Department of Corrections deputy administrator Mike Haddon said he gets a "little squirrelly" about recidivism numbers.

"I get a little bit nervous when we talk about those rates," he said.

Getting adequate data is difficult because no two studies are alike. Some look at new arrests. Some at new charges. Some, like Bench's, look at new convictions.

Haddon helped conduct a Utah State Prison study of 203 sex offenders based on rearrest, reconviction and return to prison. It showed 11 percent were rearrested and reconvicted of a new sex crime, three-fourths of which involved a child victim.

Bench's study created a profile to predict whether offenders will commit another sex crime. He found that four "statistically significant" variables increase the likelihood of reoffending: age at the first offense, number of parole violations, failed treatment and intoxication.

Applying the variables to the 389 offenders in his study, he said, he could predict with 72 percent accuracy who would commit another sex crime.

"We're very close to predicting three out of four, not perfect, not four out of four, but close," Bench said.

One inmate's transition

What does the future hold for Michael Inbody, a 30-year-old Texan convicted of having sex with a 14-year-old girl six years ago? He also was never charged with having sex with three other teenage girls and sexually abusing a 4-year-old.

Currently residing at the Bonneville Community Correctional Center, Inbody is trying to make the transition from prison to the community. In an interview he explained how he manipulated the teen with money, clothes and letting her drive his car.

"It was more of a power thing, finding someone who looked up to me," he said. "She wasn't my girlfriend. I was telling everyone she was mine. She was an object."

Treatment providers and parole agents say Inbody has changed his thinking the past few months, but he doesn't see it.

"I can't say trust me. You trusted me before and I betrayed that trust. There's always a chance I could slip. I'm a work in progress," Inbody said.

Despite the state's best efforts to teach people like Inbody to recognize and correct their deviant behavior, slipping is the chance society takes when sex offenders are released from prison.

Tony Brown is a longtime parole officer with years of experience watching sex offenders in prison, halfway houses and on the streets. Regardless of the research, personal observation leaves him pessimistic.

"Most of them don't think they've done anything wrong," he says. "They might think, 'I'm 40 years old and maybe I shouldn't be having sex with a 14 year-old, but hey, there's people out there robbing and committing murders."'

After observing several interviews with sex offenders at the halfway house, Brown shakes his head.

Of one young man who's serving time for having sex with a 14-year old girl at a party when he was 18, Brown says, "Maybe he has a fighting chance."

But Inbody?

"Uh-uh. He ain't gonna make it," he said. "They don't make it because they don't get it."