February 23, 2012

Blogger urges new paradigm for sex offenders

Clarence Opheim, sentenced to 4 years
in prison back in 1988
Among sex offenders in Minnesota, Clarence Opheim is a very important man. After 20 years of treatment, the 64-year-old pedophile will be the second person ever released from civil detention in the North Star State, which holds the dubious distinction of having the highest per capita civil commitment rate.

The other 639 detainees are pinning all their hopes on next month's provisional release. If Opheim can make it, maybe they can too. The only other guy who came out except in a body bag violated his release conditions and in 2003 was returned to detention, where he died at age 45 of a heart attack. [See comments section for more on him.]

The program has been under pressure to release someone; otherwise, it might be found Unconstitutional: The legal premise behind civilly detaining people for crimes that are only remote future possibilities is not that they will be locked up forever, but that they will be treated and then released.

Although some are cheering this as a major turning point in the civil commitment industry, one prominent Minnesota clinician says the celebration is premature: What we really need is a bold paradigm shift in which industry leaders reject civil commitment altogether.

Comparing the civil commitment of sex offenders to the interment of Japanese during World War II, Jon Brandt asks, “If hindsight is 20/20, when we look back at sex offender civil commitment many years in the future, will we be proud of the roles that we had today?"

Brandt, a social worker, directs a residential treatment program for adolescent boys. He is also an expert witness in juvenile proceedings and a frequent professional trainer and media commentator who has addressed the Minnesota legislature on child welfare issues.

In his guest post on the blog of the influential Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA), Brandt says the industry may have painted itself into a corner through its timidity about releasing sex offenders back into the community:
The Moose Lake detention site
It is not just in everyone's interest that Mr. Opheim succeeds; it is imperative. Consider the alternative: If the second of only two discharges in MSOP [the Minnesota Sex Offender Program] history fails, for any reason, both failures will be seen as a malfunction of both MSOP and SOCC [sex offender civil commitment]. A second unsuccessful discharge is not only likely to have far-reaching consequences for sexual offender management in Minnesota; a seismic "thud" may well be heard at ATSA listening posts across the country. In addition, it would be hard for the courts to ignore.

SOCC in Minnesota may now be painted into a corner. In the interest of public safety we may have compromised Constitutional protections beyond integrity. Perhaps Ben Franklin's quote is apt, that "those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
Brandt urges ATSA to take the lead in challenging civil commitment, based on the low rates of sex offender recidivism established through empirical research including a new survey in Connecticut that found that only 3.6 percent of parolees who had served a prison term for a sex crime were arrested and charged with a new sex crime:
We have very solid empirical evidence to challenge current misguided public policies. We need to get good research to the right folks. We need to infuse policy makers with the necessary information for bureaucracies to champion productive recommendations into meaningful change…. If we use our knowledge and expertise to educate the public, inform our colleagues, and persuade policymakers that best practices should emanate from good science, we might not have to settle for incremental changes. We can help create new paradigms….
If professionals who work with sexual offenders do not challenge the politics, misinformation, and misguided management of sex offender civil commitment, where is a more credible voice going to come from? In an area of public policy where reason is often eclipsed by emotion, ATSA members may be in the best position to know the research, understand competing principles, and advocate for sound rationales. If forensic psychology with sexual offenders is being dominated more by forensics than psychology, I would suggest that the tail might be wagging the dog.
I recommend reading the entire post, available HERE.