When Utah began passing laws earlier this decade to toughen up criminal sentences for sex offenses, the state may or may not have anticipated the impact on the prison population, now faced with a disproportionate number of sex offender inmates relative to other states. Corrections authorities have the task of better managing that category of offenders, the vast majority of whom will eventually be released from prison.
The debate is not whether the state’s sentencing guidelines for sex-related crimes are too harsh. Sex offenses demand a vigilant application of justice. What’s on point here is whether the state will see needed progress from a new emphasis on therapy and rehabilitation programs designed to reduce rates of recidivism and lessen the load on the corrections system.
That emphasis comes in the wake of a scathing audit last year that revealed a previously low level of prioritization on programs to treat convicted offenders once behind bars. The legislative audit found “extensive shortcomings” in the system, particularly in its application of treatment programs. A “one-size-fits-all” approach to therapy failed to include proper individual risk assessment, according to the audit, and resulted in a backlog of inmates remaining behind bars when they could have undergone effective treatment as part of release under parole or probation.
From the public safety perspective, 95 percent of sex offenders will be released from prison upon expiration of their sentences. There needs to be a high level of confidence they will be properly supervised and that the nature of their treatment will render them less likely to re-offend. There is evidence in the state’s juvenile corrections system that treatment programs tailored to individual offenders can have beneficial impact. Statistics recently reported by the Deseret News showed that while the overall recidivism rate for juvenile offenders is about 50 percent, the rate for sex offenders is only about 24 percent. And, of those one-time sex offenders re-arrested for a felony crime within a year of their release, only 1 percent of the re-arrests involved a sex crime.7 comments on this story
Authorities over the adult system are now embracing a similar approach, which is vital given the impact on both prison management and public safety. The percentage of the prison population made up by sex offenders has soared in recent decades. In 1996, there were 248 sex offenders in prison, compared with about 2,500 today. Inmates facing sex-crime sentences comprise more than a third of the overall prison population. It’s good to see corrections officials understand the benefits of a vigorous emphasis on rehabilitation programs as a way to better manage that population.
While it’s important that society take a strong stance in detecting and prosecuting sex offenses, it’s also important to recognize that offenders can be treated as well as punished. More emphasis on rehabilitation will hopefully reduce the burden of holding large numbers of offenders behind bars, as well as the risk to the public of a sex criminal re-offending once back on the streets.