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California and the West

Panel OKs Expansion of Treatment for Young Sex Offenders

April 01, 1998|MAX VANZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Studies show that 80% of adult sex offenders began such misconduct as juveniles, and there is a fledgling effort underway here to stop tomorrow's adult molesters or rapists by treating them while they are young.

On Tuesday, lawmakers took a first step on that road by approving a bill that would expand and regulate programs that have proved successful in reforming young sex criminals. The bill's authors have emphasized that its provisions in no way take the place of punishment.

The measure, AB 2009 by Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) and state Sen. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), was approved unanimously and with little debate by both liberal and conservative members of the Assembly Public Safety Committee at its first legislative airing.

At a cost of $10 million, the measure would expand a successful treatment program run by California Youth Authority psychologists.

The program's results show that with treatment, young criminals seldom repeat their sex offenses, but now fewer than 300 young sex offenders are involved. The bill would extend the program to all sex offenders in the custody of the youth authority at any one time, a number that usually hovers around 1,000.

Treatment includes sessions in which the young inmates are required to detail their crimes in the presence of others, must confront the harm caused to their victims and families, and are forced to take full blame. A bad home life, for example, is not considered an excuse for a sex crime.

The bill also would provide for better evaluation of young offenders by county probation officers, in part for the benefit of juvenile court judges who place the youths in a variety of treatment and custodial settings.

In addition, the measure would require strict training of private clinicians who treat youths referred to them by probation departments.

As it is, said Brian Abbott, executive director of the nonprofit Giarretto Institute of San Jose--the nation's first clinic for incest victims and offenders--some clinicians with little or no training in the treatment of young sex criminals are getting referrals from public agencies.

As a result, he said, youths do not receive adequate treatment and tend to grow into adult sexual predators who cause "tragic consequences for the community."

The bill also would require probation officers to take a six-hour course in the basics of criminal sexual behavior by juveniles.

William Schouweiler, a psychologist who administers one of the successful California Youth Authority rehabilitation programs, said the bill represents a "good beginning" for the state. But he said the six-hour course for probation officers responsible for advising judges, placing offenders in treatment or custody, and monitoring their progress is too short.

The Hertzberg-Schiff bill faces two more committee hearings before it reaches the Assembly floor.

California imposes some of the nation's most severe sanctions against sex offenders. Beginning later this year, for example, repeat child molesters will be required to undergo chemical castration when released from prison.

By straddling the preventive and punitive approaches to crime, the bill takes a politically prudent course in an election year.

Preventive prescriptions for stemming crime have been moving at a modest pace through the Legislature over the past two years. At least three bills that deal with treatment for sex offenders are pending in the Assembly and Senate.

But there has been little letup in the flood of legislation, much of it backed strongly by Gov. Pete Wilson, that would create harsher penalties for wrongdoers of all ages.

For example, the Public Safety Committee also approved a bill Tuesday that would increase the prison time for home burglary from two, four or six years to 10 years and more if the burglar is armed.

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