The numbers are often repeated in discussions about sexual assault, but they never become less shocking. One out of three women in Utah will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime; one out of eight will be raped.
But while there is evidence that a large percentage of sex crimes go uninvestigated and unprosecuted, there are still more people in prison in Utah for sexual assault than for any other category of crime.
Those statistics all come from the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (UCCJJ), the same agency now working with the Pew Charitable Trusts to find ways to reduce the state’s rate of incarceration and eventually, the size of its prison population. The numbers point out the difficulty in devising policies for dealing with a category of crime that is seen by society to be under-prosecuted even though it is the single largest contributor of inmates.
The UCCJJ recently released a set of 18 recommendations for the Utah Legislature to consider in lowering the rate of prison growth in Utah, but none of them have to do with the handling of sex offenses. In looking for ways to reduce the prison population, the commission has chosen to avoid looking at the largest segment of that population. In light of current events, the avoidance is understandable.
We see frequent headlines about increasing instances of international sex trafficking. Congress is acting to encourage more resources be deployed against the problem of sexual assaults on college campuses. In Salt Lake City, the Police Department has come under fire for allowing a backlog of untested evidence in rape cases, which the department recently promised to eliminate.
This all serves to create a policy dilemma with no easy way out. We seek to arrest and convict more sex offenders while, at the same time, one third of the inmates at the Utah State Prison are there for a sex offense. They take up 42 percent more prison cells than they did 10 years ago, making them the largest single segment of the prison population. Utah’s rate of incarcerating sex offenders is more than double that of neighboring states.
A fact germane to this discussion is that while the state has worked to make punishment for sex crimes more severe by increasing minimum prison sentences, it has done virtually nothing in recent decades to support reform or rehabilitation programs. The state’s $1 million annual budget for treating incarcerated sex offenders hasn’t been increased since 1996, even though the population of those who could benefit from treatment has grown exponentially.
On a national level, studies show sex offenders who undergo treatment programs while in prison are half as likely to reoffend as inmates who don’t receive treatment. Nevertheless, policy in Utah errs to the side of strict punishment, and there is little appetite for changes that could be perceived as anything other than getting tougher on sex crimes.
There is no question that sex offenses should be vigorously investigated and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But eventually, we will have to begin asking tough questions about the back end of that process, and whether or not it is necessary or advisable to continue to build more cells to lock up more offenders for longer periods of time.
And while considering sex-offender rehabilitation to reduce recidivism and bulging prison populations, can we also take a stronger look at and a more proactive limitation to the contributing factors to sexual assault? Because, to add to the Benjamin Franklin quote, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure — and a ton of incarceration.