Thursday, 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.

7 comments:

  1. Was the author being deliberately vague when the said the only other person released violated? I am willing to bet the violation was a technical violation, not a sexually related one.

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  2. You are correct. My understanding is that the man, Ray Hubbard, was provisionally released in 2000 and did not reoffend sexually, but broke other rules, including trying to move out of state. Here's more detail, from an old story in the Star-Tribune:

    "Hubbard's provisional discharge had many conditions, including reporting his progress regularly to the MSOP. For more than three years he lived outside its facilities. But in April 2003, Dr. Anita Schlank, then the MSOP's clinical director, revoked his discharge. According to records, she'd learned that he'd traveled out of state without permission and had moved without notifying the program. Then administrators learned that Hubbard had drunk alcohol in bars, had affairs and lied to treatment providers. "He was having trouble in his marriage," Cohen said. "But there was no reoffending of any sort." In court, Assistant Attorney General Noah Cashman disclosed: 'Anita Schlank's concern [was] that he was getting back into his reoffense cycle.' That summer, MSOP administrators attempted to get Hubbard back on a "pass plan," to restart his transition to freedom. But Gov. Tim Pawlenty, facing criticism over alleged discussions about eventually moving some MSOP residents to less-secure facilities, ordered all non-court-ordered passes canceled. Months later, Dru Sjodin was abducted, raped and killed by a recently released sex offender."

    The story is here: http://www.startribune.com/local/19682654.html?page=2&c=y

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  3. Where did you get the 3.6% re-offense rate? In the CT study that was just released on 2/15, I read the re-offense rate for new sex crimes committed by sex offenders was 1.7%.

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  4. Shana,

    There are a few different figures. You're thinking of the percent who were actually returned to prison on a new sex offense conviction, not the percent arrested. As Jon Brandt reports it in the post:

    "A 2012 report just released on Sex Offender Recidivism in Connecticut confirms that recidivism for sexual offenders continues to be extraordinarily low. In a five-year review of 14,400 men released from prison in 2005, of the 746 parolees who had served a prison term for a sex crime, only 27, or 3.6 percent were arrested and charged with a new sex crime; 20, or 2.7 percent were convicted; and 13, or 1.7 percent were returned to prison with a sentence for a new sex crime."

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  5. Thank you, Karen, for an excellent article. I read Mr. Brandt's words..."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…," and they are so logical and seem so obvious and reasonable, and then I read stories from family members of registrants or from registrants themselves, people caught up in the sex offender nightmare, people whose lives are destroyed and who have given up hope, and it is difficult to remain optimistic that the logical, the obvious, or the reasonable will every prevail.

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    Replies
    1. Shelly,

      I agree with you wholeheartedly. The problem is that people react emotionally, out of fear or anger, and when emotion comes into play, rationality goes out the window. I have discovered through experience that many people don't care about statistics or facts; they will believe what they want to believe regardless.

      As for the courts, their policies seem to serve the emotion and beliefs of the mainstream public, not empiricism or scientific evaluation.

      Where does change begin in a nation where hysteria reigns and public fear takes precedence over rational behavior?

      Is that too philosophical? Sorry. I'm trying to stay away from moralizing. That's typically not me.

      Delete
  6. Thanks Karen, you're right, I missed that.

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