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Fixes to contentious Colorado sex offender treatment system pushed out

By: ryan maye handy
May 12, 2013

Eleven days before he was shot to death, Colorado Department of Corrections Director Tom Clements wrote a letter to the state Senate, pledging to transform the prison's highly contentious sex offender treatment program after an independent report declared it to be poorly run.

But after Clements died March 19, his plans to change the Sex Offender Treatment and Management Program were set aside, and further attempts to address issues with the program were stymied by a packed legislative agenda that put guns, civil unions, and marijuana at the forefront.

Since Clements' death, the department has not yet unveiled plans to address issues highlighted in the report. In the meantime, the legislature and the governor ordered two more evaluations of the treatment program, due to be completed next year:

Gov. John Hickenlooper asked the Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) to create a sex offender task force to spend the next few months looking at the act and its requirements for sex offenders.

The Legislature's joint budget committee set aside $100,000 for a study of the Sex Offender Management Board, which oversees treatment programs throughout the state, due to be completed next year, according to budget documents. It is the second study of sex offender treatment ordered by lawmakers in the past year.

Now that the 2013 General Assembly has ended, the sex offender task force will look at how treatment can be improved. The move was inspired by a Republican push to transform Colorado's sex offender laws, and model them after the Florida system, known as Jessica's Law. The task force will examine how to restructure Colorado's sex offender sentencing and treatment system, and will weigh suggestions against the provisions of Jessica's law.

Nevertheless, sex offender sentencing and treatment remains a hot-button issue that many legislators are reluctant to touch. Finding a champion for legislation to improve sex offender treatment is difficult even when the Legislature is not busy, said Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs.

'One of the things that is always difficult to deal with in these circumstances is nobody wants to appear that they are being soft on crime in anyway, ' Waller said Thursday. 'And it's unfortunate. '

Laurie Rose Kepros, director of sexual litigation at the Office of the Public Defender, hopes that the task force will relieve the political stalemate that has plagued sex offender issues.

'I think that's consistent with the function of CCJJ, and what everybody's been hoping they would tackle, ' she said.

The sex offender treatment program was created in 1998 as part of the Lifetime Supervision Act, a sentencing scheme for sex offenders engineered to treat them in prison or on probation, and release them into the community.

The aim of the act was to put sex offenders into therapy, and prevent them from reoffending once they got out of prison or off parole. But since then, a lack of funds and poor management of the program has ruined any chance the program had of working, experts say.

Experts quoted in a Gazette report in April suggested that the act was misconceived from the outset, with some lawmakers and lawyers fearing that the treatment guidelines were too broad and too expensive to be sustained.

The system, instead of treating and releasing offenders, has trapped many in prison long after they were due for release. Of nearly 2,000 sex offenders sentenced to prison under the act since 1998, only 168 have been paroled. Every year, sex offender treatment demands more money - last year the corrections department spent about $2.8 million on treatment. Correction officials say they don't have the money they need to run the program.

For sex offenders, their advocates and lawyers, this legislative session was expected to offer some relief. The much-anticipated independent report, ordered by the Senate's Joint Budget Committee in 2012 to examine the treatment program, was completed this February. It criticized the program's large treatment groups, which bunch offenders of varying crimes together, and the poorly trained therapists who run them. Fixing the program would require new staff as well as legislative changes to treatment protocol, according to the report.

On March 8, Clements sent a letter to the Joint Budget Committee listing the changes the corrections department already made and those it intended to make following the report's suggestions. A new manager for the treatment program, Laura Walnofer, was hired, and the department promised to spend the coming months restructuring the treatment program - reducing therapy group sizes, and ensuring that all offenders are given the treatment their crimes call for. But the corrections department had yet to come up with a more detailed response to the report, and Clements asked to deliver a plan on June 30. The Legislature was waiting for that proposal when Clements was killed in his Monument home by paroled prisoner Evan Ebel, said Kepros.

'Everybody was waiting for their proposal, ' Kepros said on Thursday. 'That accounted somewhat for the Legislature waiting for take further action. '

During the session, Republican legislators pushed for the adoption of an entirely different sex offender sentencing system modeled after Florida's Jessica Lunsford Act, which has gained popularity in other states with its mandatory 25-year prison sentences for some sex offenders. Other lawmakers disagreed, saying Colorado's system has one of the most strict sentencing schemes for sex offenders in the nation. The types of fixes envisioned by some Republican lawmakers would not help the system, they said.

Still others are undecided as to how to implement the recommendations of the February report. At their March 15 meeting, the Sex Offender Management Board discussed whether the report's suggestions applied to them, according to meeting minutes. While some lawmakers think the report requires legislative changes to the sex offender treatment system, Waller thinks that legislative action won't be necessary to fix what's broken.

'First of all we need to figure out if we should propose legislation. Or, if we should just change policy decisions in the parole department, or in the Department of Corrections. ' Waller said. Ultimately, he wants to wait for the results of further studies. 'We'll be in a much better place to determine how we should approach this movement forward once these audits are done, ' he said. '

For sex offenders, this could mean years of waiting.

'Obviously we want things to be done thoughtfully, but that doesn't provide any relief to the people who are suffering, ' said Kepros. 'I understand where policymakers are coming from. I hope that to some end, that we don't wait and wait and then nothing comes of it. '


Gazette reporter Megan Schrader contributed to this report.

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