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September 3, 2013

Utah (re)considering its approaches to sex offender sentencing

The Salt Lake Tribune has this notable new article about its prison population and sex offender sentencnig under the headline "Utah sex offender policy in spotlight as numbers soar: More prisoners, longer sentences but funding for treatment stays flat, triggering concerns."   Here are excerpts:

A dramatic increase in the number of sex offenders incarcerated in Utah over nearly two decades is raising questions about how the state deals with such crimes and concerns about whether all inmates are able to get needed treatment before they return to their communities.

The number of sex offenders in state custody has more than doubled — to 2,194 or 31 percent of the prison population — since 1996, the last year Utah lawmakers approved an increase in treatment funding.  Although Utah’s incarceration rate is significantly lower than that of other Western states and the U.S., it leads surrounding states when it comes to the percentage of prison inmates who are sex offenders.

One reason for that: Lawmakers have taken a tough stance on sex offenses, setting stiff penalties, such as a law passed in 2008 that set a 25-years-to-life penalty for child rape. “Our culture has a very strict credo, a moral sense, of what is appropriate sexually and what is not appropriate sexually,” said Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns and a member of the Criminal Justice Appropriations subcommittee. “That may be why we incarcerate a little bit more.”

The state’s approach also has historically been shaded by the view that “once a predator, always a predator” — a misconception that may finally be poised to shift with the accumulation of evidence that shows treatment works, Hutchings said. “The discussion is not over, but it’s happening in earnest,” Hutchings said. “The mind-set for a long time has been what are we going to get by putting this money into treatment. Why not focus instead on mandatory minimum sentences and keeping these people locked away.”...

The numbers reflect that philosophy of warehousing inmates.  Today, more sex offenders in Utah are sent to prison rather than placed on probation, and they serve longer sentences.  In 2012, for example, 92 percent of first-degree felony sex offenders went to prison, up from 72 percent in 1988.  During that period, the length of time served has doubled....

Still, “The reality is we are talking about a very large group of people at the prison who are some day going to get released,” said Jonathan Ririe, a Utah psychologist who works with sex offenders in the community. And that makes investing in treatment, as well as supervision outside of prison, critical, he added....

Utah inmates convicted of first-degree felony sex offenses who were released from prison during the past five years had, on average, served 7½ years.  But some serve far longer....

One Utah analysis of inmates who completed treatment showed about 20 percent returned to prison within a year, compared with 42 percent of those who did not complete treatment.  In both groups, most offenders returned because of parole violations rather than because they committed new crimes.

A 2003 Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that sex offenders were less likely than non-sex offenders to be rearrested for any crime.  That report also found that 5.3 percent of all sex offenders were rearrested for a sex crime within three years of being released.  The percentage was even lower — 3.3 percent — for child molesters.

Ririe said it is “frustrating” that Utah’s approach has been to continually adopt more stringent sentencing guidelines that lump sex offenders together rather than adopting a system that appropriately categorizes offenders by risk factors and allows judges and the parole board a greater role in assessing them individually.

September 3, 2013 at 06:01 PM | Permalink

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Comments

What exactly were the sex offences that increased the prison population? Peeing in public, having child porn downloaded onto a computer because they didn't know how to shut off a sharefile, highschool teenagers having sex ? Although these are listed as sex offences, they differ greatly from child molesters and rapists.
Perhaps those who returned to prison for parole violations couldn't find jobs or housing with a sex offender label hung around their neck, i.e, the registry. No job, no housing equals parole violation. The government is warehousing people who made a mistake, yes, but do they need to be in prison, NO.

Posted by: kat | Sep 4, 2013 4:25:30 PM

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