by Eric Grims and Kathy Aiken
copyright the Chronicle June 3, 2009
The issue of how best to deal with sexual offenders is one that has been splashed over headlines nationally. In Vermont we’ve had our own tragic experiences over the years, including, most recently, the Brooke Bennett case. Such cases have led to strict criminal sanctions. However, the difficult question arises when such strict sanctions are not warranted and yet there is still a need to protect society from sexual offenders, as is the case with developmentally disabled offenders. We are then confronted with the dilemma of how to plan for safety, simultaneously respect individuals’ constitutional rights, and remain mindful of taxpayers’ resources.
The criminal justice system provides only a partial solution to these problems. More jails and prisons do not address the underlying issues that lead individuals to offend. Instead, society has recognized that for certain offenders the ideal setting is one which provides varying levels of supervision as individuals receive treatment to reduce the risk of committing future offenses. This is particularly true when the offenders come from the developmentally disabled community, for whom a prison setting would provide inappropriate or inadequate services.
Our understanding about treatment to reduce risk of re-offense for individuals has advanced significantly. Risk assessment tools are useful in examining re-offense risk and the impact of treatment that employs cognitive behavioral strategies in the community with intensive supervision. The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, an international professional group for providers specializing in the treatment of sex offenders, and the federal government, through the Center for Sex Offender Management, identified such a treatment modality as the standard for effective services. Approximately 80 percent of the programs recognized as providing quality services utilize cognitive behavioral treatment with relapse prevention strategies. Programs that subscribe to these guidelines have been shown by independent research to have the lowest rates of re-offense.
Because of such compelling success rates, the program operating in our community, Safe Choices, has employed such techniques since its opening. For 15 years this program has done the difficult work of treating individuals with developmental disabilities who have committed sexual offenses but are incompetent to stand trial; are competent but out on orders of probation; or have been enrolled in the program by legal guardians. The program has always operated under strict legal, ethical, and moral standards, including regular review of the effectiveness of its policies and staff. In fact, as pointed out by former Commissioner of the Department of Aging and Independent Living Susan Besio’s report to the Vermont General Assembly, “developmental services staff receive substantial values training to sensitize them to individual rights, dignity of risk, autonomy, choice, and least restrictive alternatives.” The results speak for themselves, with an outstanding record of zero re-offenses against any community members from individuals that participated in Safe Choices since its opening. Prior to the implementation of such programs, individuals remained in communities without appropriate treatment, presenting an increased risk of re-offense. It must be noted that our programs are not jails, or secured facilities and our goal is to safely integrate our clients back into the community.
This program and others like it also emphasize providing individuals the opportunity to learn life skills, with the goal of understanding how they can integrate and make positive contributions to society. For clients that present lower risks, such services are the most cost effective way to address this problem. Higher risk clients need additional supervision, and thus additional resources, although as individuals thrive in treatment less supervision is needed and fewer resources to address community safety are required.
Such a model is strikingly different from the criminal justice setting, which provides limited treatment options, often creating a vicious cycle of re-offense and incarceration. In fact, a 2003 Department of Justice study showed that sex offenders coming out of prison have substantially higher rates of recidivism for new sex crimes than non-sex offenders. These higher rates of re-offense ultimately require taxpayers to commit significant and ongoing resources related to judicial and incarceration costs.
The issue of dealing with sexual offenders, specifically those developmentally disabled offenders who are high risk, is not an issue to take lightly or exploit for sensational exposés or flashy headlines. Vermonters should understand that dealing with problems surrounding this population creates an increasingly heavy strain on local agencies. Programs that address safety for our citizens while providing appropriate services to developmentally disabled offenders are resource intensive. Policy makers should engage in a reasoned dialogue recognizing our successes of the past, while attempting to address the certain challenges of the future. Without such a dialogue we will be doing a disservice to individuals in treatment, and to our community that is relying upon these programs to make the difficult decisions that underlie the concept of community safety.
Eric Grims is the executive director of Northeast Kingdom Human Services in Newport, and Kathy Aiken is the director of Safe Choices.