Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

No easy solution to fix system for sex offenders

RYAN MAYE HANDY Updated: April 11, 2013 at 12:00 am

The Lifetime Supervision Act is rife with problems for prison officials and inmates alike. And the steps required to fix the act’s imperfections are as complex as the punishment system it created, officials and experts said

Passed in 1998 and designed to sentence sex offenders to indefinite periods in prison and on probation, the Lifetime Supervision Act pioneered a new way of treating and punishing sex offenders in Colorado. In theory, it would send some to prison and put others on probation, mandating therapy for all offenders and a chance to transition back into normal society.

Instead, the act created an unsustainably expensive treatment program that cannot meet the demands of the thousands of offenders who have been sentenced to prison or probation since 1998. It also created a strict Sex Offender Treatment and Monitoring program centered around outdated research and run by too-few therapists who are underqualified, according to a report on the program published Feb. 1. Meanwhile, sex offenders have grown impatient with lawmakers and budget requests, and have resorted to suing the department of Corrections to get out of prison.

Resolution will require more money, the department says, to eliminate a backlog of hundreds of sex offenders waiting for treatment. Resolution might also require legislative changes when it comes to the department’s treatment of offenders, according to the study. But the window for legislative change and adding funding is narrowing as the legislative session comes to a close. Even the much-anticipated report is likely to get little attention after the March shooting death of Tom Clements, director of the Department of Corrections.

Read first story in this series here.

FISCAL CHALLENGE

Without money, the Sex Offender Treatment and Monitoring program cannot finance the treatment of many of its sex offenders; the Department of Corrections has resorted to waitlists, and prioritizing its offenders, to handle the overload. In 2012 and 2013, the department requested an extra $2 million to help smooth out the kinks in its sex offender treatment program, stating in the request that more money could provide for more therapists and cover the treatment costs of more incarcerated offenders.

Last April, the Joint Budget Committee denied the request. The committee will consider the department’s budget request again in June, and it will include a plan to remedy some of the issues brought up in the study, said Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, committee vice chairwoman.

“There’s no reason to believe that the department would now back away from the results of that (report),” Levy said. “They wanted additional money to expand the treatment beds, so they can start working on the backlog. And we asked DOC to bring a more detailed plan on what they were going to do to implement changes.”

The shortage of funds means that the department cannot treat all inmates; treatment programs have waitlists. Despairing of hope from lawmakers or budget committees, sex offenders across the state have started prison newsletters to circulate information, and their supporters have launched advocacy groups. But their cause got the most traction and notice from the department when a Denver law firm launched a class action suit against the department last year. In court, the offenders allege that they are being denied places in the sex offender treatment program, the completion of which is often the key to getting paroled.

Instead, hundreds of offenders are being held in prisons across the state until the department can afford to treat them. Sometimes the wait can be years. The backlog of prisoners waiting for treatment is directly connected to a lack of funds, according to budget requests submitted over the past three years. The department has to pay the cost of treatment in prison, but increasingly it is having to help paroled offenders pay for more mandatory treatment out of prison as well.

The costs of sex offender treatment have risen since 1998; the costs of probation treatment programs, outside of prison, have followed suit. The treatment program’s budget requests have risen from just over $800,000 in 2011 to $2 million in 2012 and $2.9 million in 2013. Budget cuts in 2003 knocked 260 offenders out of treatment. They were gradually returned to the program by 2007 with more funding, according to Lifetime Supervision Act Reports from 2003 to 2007. Low staffing continued to be an issue, the reports said. In 2011, the staff to sex offender ration was one to 107; in 2012, it was one staff to every 127 sex offenders.

Inmates have filed federal lawsuits against the Department of Corrections, claiming that repeatedly denying them treatment is a violation of their constitutional rights. A few won their suits and were put back into treatment. The class action lawsuit along with the Joint Budget Committee report has provided many sex offenders with the hope that the system will be fixed. But not all of the issues with the sex offender treatment program can be fixed by money, Levy said. The report highlighted some issues with treatment that would require lawmakers to make changes.

“There are other things in the report that we believe require legislation or require the Sex Offender Management Board to change its treatment requirements,” Levy said. “Those are things that the Department of Corrections can’t control.”

Along with looking at the revised department’s budget in June, the budget committee ordered a Department of Public Safety study into treatment standards and methods used by the Sex Offender Management Board, which controls treatment protocol in the state, Levy said. She did not know when the results of that study will be available.

In the meantime, one of the department’s most pressing needs — eliminating the backlog of people waiting to get into treatment — will have to wait until next year, Levy said.

“The current law does not allow them (sex offenders) to be paroled if they are serving a sentence under the Lifetime Supervision Act, unless they have done treatment,” she explained. “That would be the legislation change for another session.”

SEEKING SOLUTIONS

There is no extra money in the budget, said Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs. Morse, formerly a member of Colorado Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice, a legislative group that advocates for inmates’ rights, explained that the lack of money spells disaster for the future of sex offenders and the Lifetime Supervision Act.

Offenders are not getting treatment, and it’s impossible to tell if the Lifetime Supervision Act is working, Morse said.

In the past, the commission has pushed bills that favor less incarceration time for prison inmates. Lawmakers have examined studies showing that treatment, rather than prolonged incarceration, is best for offenders.

“But if you don’t have treatment dollars, then what do you do?” Morse said.

Rather than releasing untreated sex offenders into the community, Morse said the alternative of “locking them up and throwing away the key” is equally expensive. But for the sake of public safety, keeping untreated sex offenders in prison seems to be the preferred alternative, for prosecutors and politicians, Morse said.

If lawmakers are going to change the Lifetime Supervision Act, they will have to consider what works and what doesn’t, as well as their emotions, said state Sen. Pat Steadman, chairman of the Senate Joint Budget Committee who oversaw the report. “We really did not want to continue investment in treatment programs that weren’t working, that weren’t evidence-based, that weren’t getting the results we want,” Steadman said. “We don’t want to just warehouse these guys in prison for the rest of their lives. And yet with indeterminate sentence, that’s all conditioned on them getting treatment to the point where they can convince the parole board it’s safe for them to be released, that’s what we’re doing.”

Although more than a decade has passed since the act was signed into law, Erin Jemison of the Colorado Coalition Against Sex Assault (CCASA) stressed that in the criminal justice world, it is still in its infancy.

The few offenders who have been paroled have not been out long enough to track long-term recidivism rates, Morse said. It could be years before the treatment provisions of the act really start to pay off, but even then it will be hard to judge, Morse said, especially if treatment is under-funded now.

“It’s a real conundrum. We need to add some more resources to this pot,” he said. “Until you’ve actually paid for all that great treatment, you don’t know if it works.”

Victims’ advocates and prosecutors, who favor the act for its strict treatment guidelines and long-term supervision policies, agree that it’s imperfect. Laurie Knight, who spent years working as a sex offender therapist, is frustrated by the need for dollars to support more treatment. Others, like Allison Boyd, a victims’ advocate in Jefferson County, will take the system for what it is.

“You know the criminal justice system is not going to be perfect,” she said. “Is the Lifetime Supervision Act perfect? No, but it’s still worth it. It’s better than not having the option.”

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