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'Lock 'Em Up' Isn't Enough

April 01, 2002|JAY ADAMS | Jay Adams is a clinical psychologist who has worked with sex offenders in state hospital, outpatient and prison settings. E-mail:

Public policy regarding sex offenders in this country has been formed by politicians who saw an opportunity to score points with a fearful, angry and ill-informed public. And no question, sex offenders are an easy group to beat up on.

Yet the resulting legislation has been costly, destructive and ineffectual. In the wake of recent news that the House has passed a bill requiring life sentences for two-time child molesters in federal jurisdictions, professionals who study and treat sex offenders must speak out.

A "lock 'em up and throw away the key" philosophy will not work because of the extent of the problem. Studies tell us that one in three women and one in six men (some say one in four) experience unwanted sexual contact with an adult before age 18. One in four women will be sexually assaulted as an adult.

In California alone there are more than 60,000 sex offenders in prison or on parole. They receive no treatment in prison and are returned to society at a rate of about 300 per month.

Once on the streets, they are required to register as sex offenders. But they receive little help because parole resources are overwhelmed and severely underfunded.

There is also evidence that the violence to which they are subjected in prison actually makes them more dangerous. And there is no doubt that the stresses they experience outside of prison--fear of disclosure, loss of jobs, fear for their very lives--increase the likelihood that they will offend again.

We have been far too willing to impose extreme and expensive sanctions without committing resources to treatment. Many states have passed Megan's laws, which may make the public feel better. It is doubtful that they have actually made children safer, however, as recent cases in California and Oregon tragically attest.

Many states have also followed the lead of Kansas, Washington and California in passing "sexually violent predator" laws. The public is misguided if it believes that these laws are a solution to the problem of sex offending, for a number of reasons.

First, it costs up to $400,000 per individual to successfully commit someone as a sexually violent predator and $107,000 more per year to keep them at Atascadero State Hospital, the sole facility in California that houses them. Since 1996, California's sexually violent predator law has cost taxpayers about $300 million, with another $300 million needed to complete a new facility at Coalinga.

There is also the question of the law's fairness. Many sex offenders spend years in prison receiving no treatment but then are told six months prior to release that they have a serious mental disorder that requires "treatment" for an indefinite period in the state hospital.

Even if civilly committed sex offenders complete treatment and proceed to the outpatient part of the program, where will they go? What community is likely to accept someone who has been labeled a "sexually violent predator"?

Members of the public and, sadly, even some professionals contend that sex offenders always offend again and that they cannot be treated. Neither is accurate. Studies of sex offender recidivism in Canada, Europe and the U.S. indicate that about 17% of untreated sex offenders offend again. Compare that with a 60% rate in California for all types of offenders. The field of sex offender treatment is less than 20 years old, but studies in Canada and the U.S. show significant advances in effectiveness.

The time is long overdue for the public to stop accepting knee-jerk solutions for what is a profound and pervasive problem in our society. Our resources for schools and social services are being drained to support a prison system that at best doesn't work and at worst makes people more violent.

We have to demand thoughtful, well-researched policies from our lawmakers to stop the cycle of violence of sex offenses.

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