Changes Finally in Store for Utah’s Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP)

After years of the supply for therapy not matching the demand, changes are finally in store for Utah’s sex offender treatment program (SOTP).

One case of many

Waiting

Photo by: Craig Sunter

Speaking with the family of an inmate housed at Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison Utah, their family member has served four years of a one to 15 year sentence for a second degree, sexual related crime. In four years since he was incarcerated, the inmate has waited to attend the Sex Offender Treatment Program without actually making it onto the waiting list. The inmate went before a parole board and was denied immediately after it was determined he had not finished (or even started) the treatment for sex offenders. Months after his parole hearing, the inmate’s name was finally added to the waiting list for the Sex Offender Treatment Program, with therapy expected to begin in 18 long months. After continuing to wait and eventually completing the treatment program, this particular inmate will have served more than half his maximum sentence before there is even a chance at him becoming eligible for parole. Sadly, this is not an uncommon fate among sex offenders currently lost in the prison population.

Waiting for help

According to the Utah Department of Corrections, “Nearly one-third of the inmates in Utah’s prison system are serving time for a sexual offense.” Many of the inmates who are incarcerated for sexual related offenses have been so for years without any behavioral therapy to aid them in their rehabilitation. Utah has a sex offender treatment program in place, however it has recently been determined that there were serious failings in the system, including the way it was being managed, operated, and funded. After decades of using a flawed system, changes are finally on the horizon.

No funding

One of the first problems to note with the current Sex Offender Treatment Program is the lack of funding. The amount of inmates needing treatment for sexual crimes has grown rapidly over the last twenty years without the funding increasing at all during this time. Not only has funding remained stagnant for the sex offender treatment program, a special housing facility meant to house sex offenders while they receive treatment was closed two years ago when the state was unable, or unwilling, to staff it. The sex offender treatment program was then moved to the Utah State Prison in Draper to be poorly managed while those needing treatment are scattered at other facilities around the state to await treatment. The cost of housing those inmates is great in comparison to the cost of treating them.

“Fundamental flaws”

Utah Department of Corrections recently discovered through a performance audit of the Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP) that there were “fundamental flaws in the way the SOTP was operating”. The program was outdated, the therapists were underpaid or underqualified, and the sex offenders receiving treatment were receiving a standard blanket therapy and not one tailored to their specific needs. Fortunately, the old director of the Sex Offender Treatment Program has been reassigned and a new director more suited for the job is eager to make changes.

Changes for sex offender treatment program (SOTP)

According to an article posted by the UDC, several changes are set to take place in the Sex Offender Treatment Program. They plan to use “an evidence-based program using cognitive-behavioral approached combined with a relapse prevention approach.” This new approach will help those who are high risk, low risk, disabled, as well as provide help following completion of treatment. They also stated that “other SOTP changes include:

• Conducting rigorous, real-time, and continuous risk assessments of the participants to ensure that the program is working effectively, which include following industry guidelines.
• New processes/criteria for entering, suspending and removing from treatment including removing punitive measures for treatment termination.
• Increased communication with the Board of Pardons and Parole and improved processes to reduce therapists’ administrative tasks for reports so they can focus on treating offenders.
• Introducing on-site aftercare services for offenders to access ongoing counseling, psychotherapy, and meetings in a modified Therapeutic Community setting.
• Implementing a strategic plan with goals, objectives, performance measures and evaluations for the SOTP.
• Adjusting position titles and roles to match the industry standards, treatment team’s duties and responsibilities.
• Working with the Department of Human Resource Management to determine competitive pay for psychologists. “

For those currently facing time for a sexual related crime, there is hope for proper and prompt treatment in the future. Those who are already incarcerated should see the effects of these changes shortly.

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.