Sex offenses are often considered the most heinous of crimes mainly because of the impact they have on the victims.
The question of what to do with people who commit sex offenses is not a new one, but has been the point of debate as around 20 states, including New York have implemented laws designed to deal with sex offenders after their criminal sentence is served.
Some people believe these laws and included programs were created out of fear rather than hard facts while others contend they are a good first step toward dealing with an issue that potentially affects everyone's public safety.
RECIDIVISM RATES: HARD NUMBERS VS. PUBLIC PERCEPTION
The common thought is that sex offenders - once they act on their urges - will not be able to control themselves in the future, posing a perpetual risk to society. The idea that they are more prone to re-offend than people convicted of other crimes is simply not true, according to a 2007 study spearheaded by the Florida Institute of Technology.
In the study, the four authors concluded that the public perception of sex offender recidivism was much higher than the actual documented instances.
"Approximately 1-2 percent of adult males will eventually be convicted of a sexual assault, but this does not mean that they are all equally likely to repeat their crimes," the study reported. "Recidivism rates vary based on the type of offense and other risk factors such as offender age, degree of sexual deviance, criminal history and victim preferences."
The United States Department of Justice found that 5 percent of 9,691 sex offenders released from prison were re-arrested for new sex crimes within three years, according to a 2003 report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
At the same time, the violent nonsexual recidivism rate was gauged to be around 14 percent. But for criminal offenders of all types, the likelihood of repeating the crime diminishes with lengthier periods of time that the person abstains from the problematic behavior.
"Common misconceptions may interfere with offenders' treatment and reintegration into society as well as influence legislatures to pass laws that are misguided and inefficient," the authors wrote.
The study also concluded that sex offenders who did not participate in psychological treatment had a higher recidivism rate, around 17 percent, than those who received cognitive therapy, which was around 10 percent.
CIVIL CONFINEMENT VS. STRICT AND INTENSIVE SUPERVISION IN THE COMMUNITY
In the United States Supreme Court case of Kansas V. Crane, the court acknowledged the states' right to commit convicts - who have already served their criminal sentences - to a mental hospital through a civil proceeding, as long as due process is followed and the convict is shown to lack control of their actions.
In 2007, at the urging of then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer, the legislature passed article 10 of the Mental Hygiene Law, which allows sex offenders who are deemed to have a "mental abnormality" that makes them likely to re-offend to be institutionalized if a jury - or the state Supreme Court if a jury trial is waived - agrees with the conclusions of their mental evaluation.
The mental evaluation is conducted by the state Office of Mental Hygiene and the Attorney General's office conducts the litigation, on behalf of the state.
Based on the conclusions of the mental evaluation conducted at the end of a criminal sentence, OMH may recommend that a sex offender be civilly confined, as is the case with Nushawn Williams, the Brooklyn native who became infamous after infecting several females with the HIV virus in the 1990s.
Another option is strict and intensive supervision in the community. According to OMH's annual report on article 10's implementation, the primary goal of SIST is to successfully manage, in the community, sex offenders who are determined to suffer from mental abnormalities that predispose them to commit sexual offenses, but who are not deemed to be dangerous enough to require civil confinement.
"SIST provides increased public protection through mandatory treatment and intensive supervision, while avoiding the high costs associated with confinement in a secure treatment facility," the annual report stated.
The offenders are held to certain "extensive" conditions upon release, that mirror specialized conditions imposed on sex offenders subject to traditional parole supervision. Their SIST often involves global positioning satellite tracking, polygraph monitoring, specification of residence, prohibiting contact with identified past or potential victims, type and frequency of treatment sessions, and other related treatment and supervision requirements.
With civil confinement, the sex offender will receive treatment, care and be kept under the control of OMH within the secure treatment facilities located on the grounds of either the Central New York Psychiatric Center or the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center. The cost, per resident, is said to be $175,000 per year, according to OMH.
According to OMH, the secure treatment facilities operate Sex Offender Treatment Programs within the framework of the Risk-Need-Responsivity Model, which matches the residents' risk to the level of services provided. Through the course of the four-phase treatment process, the physicians target the residents' criminogenic needs in treatment, maximizing their ability to benefit from treatment by tailoring it to their learning style, motivation, abilities, and strengths.
Cognitive behavioral therapy and relapse prevention strategies are also utilized in the treatment interventions. All interventions are designed to promote growth in key areas such as treatment engagement, general self-regulation, sexual deviancy management, and development of pro-social attitudes and behavior, with the intended outcome of reducing residents' risk of sexual recidivism. The final treatment goal is the residents' safe re-integration into the community.
A SYSTEM IN ITS INFANCY
Since the program began in 2007, it has undergone some changes, according to Jill Daniels, a spokesperson for OMH.
"When the law first passed, the whole concept was brand new to the Office of Mental Health, but we based the program on best practices from other states and existing programs," she said. "But some of the mental health evaluating has been tweaked to better identify who needs to be confined and who would be best suited to receive treatment in the community."
Ms. Daniels explained that the treatment staff at the centers was cut at one point, as program administrators realized that there was a better way to use their resources.
"We are still learning from our own experience, and changes are made throughout that process," she said.
It does cost much more money to treat someone in civil confinement than to treat them in the community, according to OMH and other mental health advocates.
The Coalition of Behavioral Health Agencies have previously called for restructuring of the Sex Offender Management and Treatment program (article 10), citing that it cost OMH $38 million to operate it in fiscal year 2008-09. The group claimed that the spending is excessive, "especially where evidence of a psychiatric cure is not clear."
"When OMH's sex offender program was initiated, mental health stakeholders were assured that this program would not place a financial drain on the mental health system," the executive director of the Coalition of Behavioral Health Agencies wrote in a 2009 article for the New York Nonprofit Press. "Now the system is experiencing an increased demand for civil confinement, while community-based mental health programs that serve New York's most vulnerable citizens are struggling to make ends meet."
Aside from the consideration about finances, and the impact the program might have on other community-based programs, some people have criticized the prospect of the government confining someone beyond the length of their criminal sentence.
According to the 2009 annual report on article 10 of the mental health law, as of Oct. 31, 2009, there were 190 people being civilly confined in state facilities taking part on the four-phase program. Phase four of the program involves community re-entry plan development, leading to the offenders eventual release.
As of Oct. 31, 2009, no one has ever been released from the program, or even graduated to phase four, a fact that some people applaud while others wonder if the confinement will be life-long.
"When we have someone in criminal confinement, the overall goal is treatment to prepare them for reintegration into society," Ms. Daniels said. "Whether this will happen with this population of people, only time will tell."