Because of inaction by the 1988 Legislature, the Department of Corrections may be forced to release some sex offenders without knowing whether sexual deviancies have been cured.
"That's unfortunate," Myron March, director of field operations for Corrections, said of the failure of HB156 in the legislative session.The department fought for the bill, "but the mood up there was like people crawling into a shell because they were embarrassed. There were a lot of jokes about the bill, so it was hard for them to be serious," March said.
What was funny on Capitol Hill, however, is no joking matter to the Department of Corrections. More than 700 sex offenders are in Utah's correctional system. Because of inadequate funding and refusal of some offenders to admit to their crimes, less than 10 percent receive intense treatment.
The department's treatment of sex offenders involves the use of a device called a plethysmograph a machine that measures sexual arousal. It helps determine whether treatment for sexual deviancies is working.
In the treatment, sex offenders are exposed to pornographic materials to measure their response. Over a period of time, therapists are able to determine whether an offender is still aroused by deviant sex acts.
The problem, however, is that the Department of Corrections is not exempt from the state pornography statutes. The department, which has used pornography for years in treating sex offenders, went to the Legislature seeking a legal exemption for the purpose of therapeutic treatment.
They didn't get it.
"It was a very sensitive issue, and people were very embarrassed to talk about those issues," March said. "The bill became a ple
thysmograph bill, instead of a bill for the treatment of sex offenders and what would be best for the community, the protection of society and the long-range goal of rehabilitation of sex offenders."
(Ironically, sexually explicit materials can be used by accredited universities, colleges, schools, libraries, church and museums that are exempt from the pornographic statute, when there is educational justification.)
By refusing to pass HB156, legislators restricted what audio and visual material can be used during a plethysmograph evaluation, which they say is the only effective method of determining whether intense sexual-abuse treatment has been effective.
It's also the only way, they say, to ensure that a sex offender can be released from corrections knowing he is not a threat to the community.
"The other alternative is to ask the individual if he is cured. But how does a therapist really know if he's telling the truth?" said March. "The machine lets us know. It gives us a gauge as to the risk the person poses to the community. Without that, we really can't gauge the risk. It then becomes a guessing game."
What is especially disconcerting to corrections officials is that sex offenders typically have a high rate of recidivism. According to Cathy Cartwright, coordinator of the educational component of the sex-offender program at Bonneville Community Correctional Center, there's an 85 percent recidivism rate among sex offenders who receive no treatment; 40 percent among those involved only in group therapy.
But among those who use the plethysmograph evaluations in conjunction with other therapies, the recidivism rates drop to 5 percent a success rate among the best anywhere in the country.
The program at Bonneville offers a variety of cognitive and behavior modalities including course work designed to assist the offender to develop new social, dating and parenting skills.
More traditional, but very intense group and individual therapy is also included in the program to help offenders identify coping skills and strategies to change their ways.
Cartwright said the plethysmograph assessment, used with the abuser's consent several times during treatment, measures the effectiveness of the treatment program and the abuser's readiness to return to society.
Corrections officials hope the program isn't compromised because of the Legislature's refusal to provide an exemption for specific pornographic materials used in the treatment of criminal offenders. But that is a distinct possibility.
March said the department will continue to use the plethysmograph, but will voluntarily limit what sexually explicit material are used. (The department has never used videos or audio tapes of sex acts involving children.)
"We may have to re-evaluate some of the hard-core pictures we show of adults, but we will not get the true effect and measurement if we have to eliminate them," he said.
Meanwhile, March said they will be seeking the support of the Statewide Association of Prosecutors and county attorneys, and they hope to have the same bill introduced next year.
"We hope to take the kidding, joking and embarrassment away from this issue so people can understand the importance of the machine," he said.