February 21, 2012

Treatment and risk among the most dangerous sex offenders

 Study questions need for lengthy treatment of detainees 

McNeil Island with prison ferry in foreground
McNeil Island is a lonesome place these days. In a cost-saving moving, the state of Washington has shuttered the prison. The McNeil Island Correctional Center was the last of its kind, the twin sister of the more infamous Alcatraz Penitentiary in the San Francisco Bay.

Back when I briefly worked there in the late 1990s, it was a rustic place, its forests and overgrown orchards teeming with deer and other wildlife. Now, it is dominated by a modern civil detention site housing about 284 sex offenders. Built at a cost of $60 million, the Special Commitment Center costs another $133 million* per year to run, at a time of massive cuts to essential public services.

Special Commitment Center (photo credit: Seattle Times)
Although Washington holds the distinction of housing civil detainees on a remote island that can only be reached by air or water, the state's larger quandary is not unique. Swept along by public panics and political posturing, 20 U.S. states have approved civil detention programs that are becoming costly albatrosses.

The 30 other U.S. states, as well as other countries around the world, are in a position to ridicule the obscenely high costs of indefinitely quarantining such small handfuls of offenders.

Our neighbors to the north are far more sensible, as it turns out. At the Regional Treatment Centre (RTC) in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, civil commitment is nonexistent, and the highest-risk sex offenders may be released after an average of just seven months of treatment.

And how many of those bad actors go on to sexually reoffend after their brief but intensive treatment?

Fewer than 6 percent, according to a new study. Although the study's 2.5-year follow-up period is relatively short, the findings echo those of a previous study by co-author Jeffrey Abracen and colleagues, finding that even after nine years, only about 10 percent of offenders released from the RTC had reoffended.

Comparing high-risk Canadian sex offenders with similarly dangerous offenders civilly committed in the U.S. state of Florida, the researchers found the two populations to be virtually identical. Of the 31 sex offenders released in Florida, only one (or 3 percent) sexually reoffended. Because so few sex offenders are being released from civil detention sites in the United States, it is difficult to accurately estimate how many of them might reoffend in the community; this study could help to fill this gap, by providing a proxy group.

The low recidivism rates in Canada after only brief treatment suggests that the interminable treatment regimens at U.S. civil commitment sites, which typically last for years and years, are "more cultural than practical," reflecting the U.S. propensity for severe punishment, according to the study's authors, Robin Wilson and Donald Pake Jr. of Florida and Jan Looman and Jeffrey Abracen of Canada. One downside of such interminable treatment is that offenders may become institutionalized, with negative affects on their personalities, the authors suggest.

The researchers highlighted the fact that despite being among the highest-risk sex offenders from their respective prison systems, both the Canadian and U.S. offenders reoffended at rates far below those predicted by the Static-99 and Static-99R, the most widely used actuarial instruments for predicting recidivism.

These researchers are not the only ones coming to the conclusion that the actuarial instruments drastically overpredict recidivism. In the state of Virginia, lawmakers are questioning the use of the Static-99 after noting that civil commitment recommendations shot up when the state began mandating use of the Static-99 in 2006, jumping from about 7 percent to 25 percent of all sex offenders being released from prison.

"When the test was designated in law in 2006, it was believed that a score of 5 meant that the offender was 32 percent likely to commit another sex crime," according to a news report. "Updates have brought that risk down to about 11 percent. Researchers say that even may be too high."

Echoing what many of us have been saying for several years now, a study by Virginia's Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the investigative arm of that state's General Assembly, concluded that the Static-99 is not all that accurate for assessing the risk of specific individuals, as opposed to groups.

Rather than scrapping the civil commitment program altogether, and saving themselves a cool $23 million per year, the first state to mandate the Static-99 almost did a 180 to become the first state to scrap its use altogether. Proposed legislation would have entirely "eliminate[d] the use of the Static-99 assessment instrument" for civil commitment purposes. For some reason, though, that language was removed from the most current version of House Bill 1271.

Stay tuned. As more solid research begins to overtake the hype, these and other political skirmishes are likely to become more common in financially desperate states. Eventually, I predict the entire civil commitment enterprise will hit the scrap pile as did the old sexual psychopath laws of the 1950s, but not before 20 U.S. states and the federal government squander many, many more millions of public dollars.

The study is: Comparing Sexual Offenders at the Regional Treatment Centre (Ontario) and the Florida Civil Commitment Center by Robin Wilson, Jan Looman, Jeffrey Abracen and Donald Pake Jr., forthcoming from the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology. To request a copy of this article, you may email co-author Jan Looman (CLICK HERE). Thank you, Dr. Looman.

*See comment by Becky, below, who found the exact cost in the current state budget.