Rehabilitation, recidivism hot topics

Published: Sunday, March 16 2008 12:15 a.m. MDT

Tim Snyder watches TV as parole officer Tony Brown, right, speaks with Robert Beaver at a halfway house for sex offenders in Salt Lake City in January.

Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News

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.

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