Do Sex Crimes Receive Too Harsh of Punishments in Utah?

Utah is known for being too tough on many crimes such as drugs, yet few question whether or not other offenses such as sex crimes are receiving harsh punishments as well.

Leniency for some, not for others

Photo by: eflon

Photo by: eflon

Utah is making strides to reduce the penalties for offenses such as drug possession, yet those arrested for sex crimes can usually expect to receive exceptionally harsh punishments with no public outcry for leniency. Sex offenders receive no mercy in court, and everyone seems happy to lock them up and throw away the key. Although sex crimes are very serious charges and should carry punishments, there are some things to consider before locking offenders away for life.

Prison population

One of the reasons House Bill 348 was signed was to help decrease the prison population by reducing the number of drug offenders taking up room. While those arrested for drug crimes have faced unfair punishments, the prison population won’t necessarily decrease with the drug offenders gone. Instead the prisons will be filled to capacity with those serving lengthy sentences for murder or sex crimes. According to the Utah Department of Corrections (UDC), “Nearly one-third of the inmates in Utah’s prison system are serving time for a sexual offense.” This number of sex offenders in prison has been increasing and will continue to do so until the prisons are at full capacity; then what?

Mandatory prison sentences for sex crimes

Photo by: Chris Potter

Photo by: Chris Potter

While everyone else is getting out early or having reduced sentences to start, those in prison for sex crimes will be there for an extended length of time. A person with no previous criminal record that is convicted of a sex crime will spend anywhere from 5 years to life in prison. Utah Code 76-3-406 adds regarding those charged with sex crimes ranging from aggravated sexual assault to rape, “probation shall not be granted, the execution or imposition of sentence shall not be suspended, the court shall not enter a judgment for a lower category of offense, and hospitalization shall not be ordered, the effect of which would in any way shorten the prison sentence for any person who commits a capital felony or a first degree felony [of various sex crimes]”. In other words, they can go to prison and stay there.

Lack of treatment programs

While many sex offenders wait out their lengthy prison sentences, most will not be able to partake in the much needed Sex Offender Treatment Program to help them “control urges and impulses” as the UDC aims to do to help rehabilitate them. While the State of Utah will dish out millions to house inmates imprisoned for sex crimes, they are not increasing funding for the sex offender programs that will help treat these inmates by giving them the therapeutic and behavioral support they need. In fact:

• According to a briefing by the Utah State Legislature in 2011, “the last new funding for prison sex offender treatment programming was in 1996” twenty years ago!

• At that time of that briefing, the Utah State legislature stated “the department of corrections [was] funded for approximately 250 sex offender treatment slots” but had nearly 2,000 offenders who were incarcerated for sex crimes. The number of sex offenders has increased in five years, with treatment remaining stagnant.

• While not outwardly stating so, sex offender treatment may in fact be decreasing or as UDC called “a demand coupled with a lack of resources”. In October of 2015, the Special Services Dormitory which housed inmates who were “awaiting or undergoing sex offender treatment” was closed because of staffing issues. The inmates were then absorbed back into the general inmate population with a lower chance of receiving treatment.

The one-third of Utah’s prison population that consists of those convicted of sex crimes are not getting the help they need to be rehabilitated when their far distant release date nears. They are practically set up to fail.

Low recidivism rate

Arrested for Sex Crimes

Photo by: Office of Public Affairs

Even with the odds against them, those mostly first time offenders convicted of sex crimes have a surprisingly low recidivism rate. The Sex Offender Treatment Report 2010 stated that 43% of sex offender parolees returned to jail within a year. 87% of those returning to jail did so because of “technical violations of the conditions of parole, not new criminal behavior.” Only 12.3% returned for committing another crime. While the recidivism rate for sex offenders is already low, graduation from a treatment program dropped that recidivism rate even lower. Those that graduation from a Sex Offender Treatment Program only had a recidivism rate of 19.5%; 26% lower than those who didn’t complete treatment. The majority of those returning were also rearrested for simple technical violations of their parole.

Treatment and parole most effective

While many Utah residents wish to see those convicted of sex crimes spend a lifetime in jail, there are other options such as treatment and parole that are proven to be more effective. By reducing penalties and sentencing while in turn increasing funding for the Sex Offender Treatment Program, taxpayers will end up saving millions in the long run and Utah prisons will not become overrun by those serving life sentences for first time sex crimes.


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