Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Tiered single cells at the Utah State Prison in Draper on Thursday, June 11, 2015.

UTAH STATE PRISON — The sex offender population at the Utah State Prison continues to grow at a staggering pace.

Aaron Thorup, Utah Department of Corrections

In 1996, there were 248 sex offenders incarcerated by the Utah Department of Corrections. Today, there are 10 times that number, in the neighborhood of 2,500 at both the Point of the Mountain and the prison in Gunnison, making it by far the fastest-growing population at the prison.

There are an additional 2,200 sex offenders currently under the watch of Adult Probation and Parole.

A Pew study in 2014 found that 31 percent of all inmates in Utah were serving time for a sex offense — a 42 percent increase since 2004.

According to a Utah Sentencing Commission report, the percentage of inmates in prison for sex offenses grew to nearly 34 percent in 2016 to over 35 percent in 2017.

While the general public sees the seemingly daily headlines of people being arrested or charged with child pornography, rape or sexually abusing minors, what many don’t realize is that the majority of those people who are convicted of a sex offense will be released from prison one day.

Actually, 95 percent of all people who are sent to prison will eventually be released, according to Victor Kersey, the director of institutional programming at the Utah Department of Corrections.

“It’s actually a very small population that will never see the outside,” he said.

Prison officials remind the public that they are part of the Department of Corrections. The goal is to help individuals correct their wrong behavior so they can re-enter society as a productive member. Prison is not just a timeout box.

The question then becomes: What is being done to correct the behavior of these inmates so they are less likely to reoffend when they are released?

A major overhaul

The numbers are disturbing.

Since 2008, the number of sex offenses that have been charged in Salt Lake County alone by the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office include:

  • More than 900 counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child.
  • An additional 800 counts of sexual abuse of a child with no aggravated factors.
  • Nearly 500 counts of rape.
  • More than 700 counts of sodomy on a child.
  • More than 500 counts of forcible sex abuse.
  • More than 100 counts of sexual exploitation of a minor.
  • More than 100 counts of dealing in harmful materials to a minor.

According to the most recent statistics from the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification, while overall crimes — including most violent crimes — were down in Utah in 2017, rape was up 11.36 percent. Rapes have shown a steady increase in Utah every year since 2014, according to the bureau.

According to state statistics, a rape happens every 6.25 hours in Utah.

But until recently, all of those sex offenders who were convicted and sent to the Utah State Prison were being treated the same way. It was essentially a one-program-fits-all style.

A scathing 2017 audit from the Utah legislative auditor general slammed the Utah Department of Corrections' sex offender treatment program. The report said the program was plagued by poor management, weak oversight and out-of-date methods to treat offenders.

Kersey, who was brought on board just before the report was released, said his department already knew what the audit was going to say.

“We knew it was not good,” he said. “What we decided to do was wait until the legislative audit completed itself before we started making any changes that we identified were necessary at the time.”

A “major overhaul” of the sex offender treatment program was launched in March of 2017.

“We’ve designed a program within a program within a program, so to speak. We have eight core programs that are designed to address specific risks and needs of offenders. Rather than having a one-size-fits-all program, which historically we had at the Utah State Prison, we have designed programs that are specific to meet the needs of the offenders, their risk, their offense, their level of functioning, those kind of things,” Kersey said.

Inmates are now broken into groups of 10 to 12 for each program. Depending on the type of crime an inmate is convicted of, some programs for low risk offenders last for six months while core programs for those who are at high risk to reoffend can last from 1 ½ to two years.

“What we found is that our offenders lack some of just the basic concepts in sex education and human sexuality and personal boundaries. Part of the reason they commit sexual offenses is they don’t have those basic skills,” he said. “It really is about behavior modification and reprogramming their thought distortions, and teaching them basic skills that will assist them in identifying events or people that trigger their sexual arousal or their sexual deviancy.

“All sex offenders are different. Their interests are very different. And we’ve got about 35 offenders that have 'hands-off offenses.' They have internet child pornography — possession, distribution, manufacturing charges — only. They’ve never had a victim. So we have to treat them very differently than an offender who had a pre-pubescent victim, and maybe many victims,” Kersey continued.

The goal of treatment is to “reprogram” an offender so that should they have deviant thoughts again after being released, they’ll have the skills to hopefully not act on those fantasies.

But, he said, there is no “magical cure.”

“It’s not something that after treatment it just shuts off and they’ll never do it again. It’s really much like a substance abuser addicted to alcohol or drugs. They’re battling that addiction the rest of their lives,” he said.

Inmates in sex offender treatment are taught empathy, anger management, impulse control, accepting responsibility and other life skills. They participate in group therapy twice a week and once a week with a staff member. Inmates are expected to complete workbooks and keep daily journals.

An estimated 65 percent of adult sex offenders have been victims themselves, he said. Usually, their trauma has never been addressed by the time they arrive in prison.

But corrections officials say progress isn't measured solely by time spent in the program or completed worksheets. Staffers look for "observable changes" such as motivation, and an inmate's "willingness to incorporate changes freely to show commitment toward rehabilitation without being defensive," according to the prison's website.

“There will always be that classification of offenders that cannot just be treated and rehabilitated,” and they will typically serve life sentences, Kersey added.

Despite the revamping of the sex offender treatment program, Kersey said he still faces challenges.

“Although the offender population has significantly increased, my staffing has not,” he said. “I have the same number of clinicians as I had 22 years ago.”

Since September, the prison has increased the number of providers using graduate level interns. According to the prison, the result has more than tripled the number of clinicians and offenders in treatment.

In revamping the programs, prison officials also took into consideration that forcing inmates into treatment is often counter-productive.

“They resisted if they’re told they have to do it,” Kersey said.

Now, sex offender treatment is voluntary. But inmates soon learn that if they don't participate, it will affect their hearings before the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole.

“Its not a good idea to take yourself out of treatment. You better do it or you’re coming back for another year or two,” he said.

Another reason the sex offender population at the prison is growing is because lengthier sentences are being issued.

In 2012, Utah lawmakers approved a mandatory 25-years-to-life sentence for those convicted of child rape and other child sex-related crimes.

But some point to the issue starting even further back than that.

The state’s annual Sentencing Commission Report for 2017 notes that "the percent of sex offenders sentenced to prison … increased substantially in 1996 and has remained quite stable since that time.”

The report also states: “The number of felony sex offender admissions to corrections (prison and probation) has been on a steady increase since 1988."

Juvenile offenders

While the number of rapes continues to rise in Utah, not all of those offenders will end up in the Utah State Prison.

That’s due, in part, to the age of those committing most of the rapes in Utah.

According to disturbing statistics from the Bureau of Criminal Information, the 15-to-19 age group accounted for the most arrests for rape from 2013 to 2017. The group that made of the second-highest number of arrests were those between 10 years old to 14 years old.

Department of Human Services spokeswoman Jackie Chamberlain agreed the bureau's statistics are concerning. But while she can’t speculate why the rate of rape arrests for juveniles is higher than adults, she said those who are placed with the Division of Juvenile Justice Services “have a higher rate of success than our general delinquency population.

“Because of the nature of the crime, we take treatment seriously and provide individualized evidence-based approaches relying on the Network on Juveniles Offending Sexually treatment,” she said.

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Juvenile Justice Services statistics for 2014-2016 showed the overall recidivism rate was at about 50 percent. But for juveniles adjudicated for sex offenses, 23.8 percent were arrested for a new felony crime within a year of being released, Chamberlain said, but less than 1 percent were arrested for a new sex offense during that time period.

“As you can see, our success rate for youth adjudicated on sex offenses is much higher than our general delinquency population," she said.

"The treatment we provide is individualized for each youth. These kids are generally with us for a longer period of time, and they receive very specific treatment while in our care. Additionally, due to the serious nature and type of the crime, they are followed closely after release.”