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.


Unknown said...

The only institutionalized population in Washington State more expensive than the kids at Child Study and Treatment Center.

From the Current Washington State Budget:
Supervising 293 sexually violent predators civilly committed at the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island. ($133.0 million GF-S)

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Thanks! Looks like I underestimated it by a lot! (I calculated based on a figure of $173,000 per detainee, as reported in the news recently, but clearly that per-detainee figure excludes some major expenses.)

Robin J. Wilson said...

Before you send me an email asking for a copy...If you're an ATSA member, you can do this from the member's only side of the website www.atsa.com. Once you sign in, click on SAJRT and follow the instructions for accessing other SAGE journals. Robin.

researcherone said...

This goes to show that sentencing assessment and the post-incarceration registration requirement are based more on public fear than actualities. Hopefully, this will serve as a step in the direction to loosen the strictness of policy regarding civil commitment and follow-up registration of sex offenders. Not all 'offenders' are an ongoing threat to the community.

Thank you for the link, Robin. I would be very interested in looking further into this.

researcherone said...

In rereading this, I considered something else:

"Eventually, I predict the entire civil commitment enterprise will hit the scrap pile as did the old sexual psychopath laws of the 1950s"

I presume that the 'NOS - Hebephilia' entry will likely be removed from the DSM as well, ending once and for all the need of a diagnosis for many [most?] sex offenders? That will also help our economy in the long run.

Unknown said...

My name is Neil B Fisher do to my many years of tracking the true information as per all the misinformation and the myths regarding sex offenders and my studies of the traits and chariteristics of the common simple sex offender Vs. the dangerous violent sexual predator and the non violent sexual predator I have been asked if i would like to become a subcommitee member of the State of California Sex Offender Management Board. (CSOMB)("I said yes I would") this subcommitte's (committee comes from the word committed)main duty is to inform,tell advise,relate to the general public the real and true facts regarding sex offenders as to prevent the panic, the fear, the being afraid for their children and family and then with hast the making of laws,rules and regulations, the building of special prisons costing the tax payer millions upon millions of dollars.the true fact is that its not even close to what the general public has been made to believe as the truth and the fact is if the general public knew all the true facts there would not be the need to build the special housing prisons, and many would not even still be made to register To save time and space I earge and plee to those who are not aware of all the true facts to get online GOOGLE or use whatever search program and type in the heading true facts and myths of sex offenders and read the many websites (a great many are know being placed in their Sex offender Management Boards and the U.S.Dept. of Justice Criminal Stats regardind sex crimes) You will also see all the science facts (mathmatics and numbers?stats)and when and who searched out the facts. Thank You for your taking the time to learn a little truth in a world where there is a lot of false information going around but Im just a simple man who took the time to search out and investigate the facts and now being the State of California who just happens to be the state that stated tracking and registering sex offendes way back in 1945 has admitted to, aggrees with and supports these true findings being it also has the majority of offenders just under 88,000 at last count,wants and needs the true facts to be told to its general population for a great many reasons but that is not the concern of this subcommittee.
Good Day.
If anyone has a question you can contact me at neilbfisher@yahoo.com or sexoffendermyths@yahoo.com or just go to the CSOMB webpage