By David Olinger
A 15-year-old state law that created a lifetime-supervision sentence for Colorado sex offenders provides insufficient treatment for many of the highest-risk inmates and has left thousands of others waiting for therapy in prison, according to a recent audit.
Demand for treatment in the Department of Corrections' Sex Offender Treatment and Monitoring Program greatly exceeds supply, the audit found. Just one-sixth of inmates eligible to begin treatment are able to start the program each year — effectively keeping many sex offenders in prison indefinitely.
More than 1,000 inmates who are ready and waiting for treatment have passed their parole-eligibility dates, the auditors found. Their prolonged incarceration may be costing Colorado taxpayers as much as $30 million a year.
In a scathing audit given to corrections officials in February, Central Coast Clinical and Forensic Psychology Services Inc. also found the sex-offender program suffers from poorly qualified therapists and inappropriate levels of treatment given offenders.
"It's a disaster," said Laurie Kepros, who directs sexual-litigation cases for the Colorado public defender's office.
"Thousands of people are being told you have to have treatment to get out of prison" by a system failing to provide that treatment, she said. "We're paying for this every day."
Former Republican state Rep. Norma Anderson, who sponsored the 1998 law, said she recognizes the high cost of keeping many violent sex offenders in prison indefinitely and would like to see funding for treatment increased. Still, "I'd rather have them there than out committing another sex crime," she said. "I'm on the side of the victim and always will be."
- So is she basically saying that anybody who commits any crime, especially one that harms children, should be locked up for life? Sounds like it to us.
Slaying of prisons chiefTom Clements, the state corrections chief who was killed March 19, had promised a swift response to the issues raised by the audit and fundamental changes to the sex-offender program in a March 8 letter to the legislative Joint Budget Committee.
Clements was shot to death at the door of his Monument home. The suspected killer, [name withheld], was an inmate who had been released directly from solitary confinement to "intensive supervision" parole.
Clements' murder brought intense scrutiny to the state parole system because [name withheld] paroled on robbery and related charges, had slipped off his ankle bracelet five days earlier.
Now, legislators say they also plan to scrutinize the sex-offender treatment program within the prisons — and the law that created potential lifetime sentences for sex offenses.
The law established indeterminate sentences — five years to life, for example — for many sex-offense crimes in Colorado. Sex offenders who successfully complete a prison-treatment program and get paroled then enter a community-based lifetime-supervision program.
The lifetime-supervision sentence applies to people convicted of sexual-contact crimes ranging from statutory rape to sexual assaults of children, incest and rape. It does not apply to lesser sex crimes such as indecent exposure, adult prostitution and some attempted sexual assaults.
More sex offendersThe number of Colorado inmates classified as sex offenders has grown from 21 percent to 26 percent of the total prison population in five years. Much of the growth can be traced to the 1998 law.
By 2012, more than 1,600 of the nearly 4,000 men classified as sex offenders in Colorado prisons were sentenced under the law.
The audit of the program was undertaken at the behest of state Rep. Claire Levy, a Boulder Democrat who serves on the Joint Budget Committee. She said it confirmed her longstanding concerns about the program's fairness and effectiveness.
It affirmed that "low-risk sex offenders can be treated as effectively in the community," Levy said. "The lifetime-supervision law does not allow that."
The report described the state's sex-offender treatment program as "largely a one-size-fits-all program in which all treatment participants are generally expected to complete the same treatment exercises."
This treatment occurs in groups that "are very large, often with 14 per group," the experts wrote.
The auditors reported that low-risk sex offenders in Colorado remain imprisoned at great cost, that the most dangerous offenders get too little attention and that nearly half the therapists they observed were "poor" — conducting group therapy sessions with behaviors "outside the range of what is acceptable for a therapist."
In some cases, those therapists appeared bored and "sometimes expressed hostility," the authors reported. "Therapists sometimes appeared demeaning and condescending, mocking their patients."
The state spends about $31,000 a year to keep a single person in prison. That's $30 million a year the state is spending unnecessarily if the prison system holds a thousand sex offenders who could be treated safely outside, said Kepros of the public defender's office.
"Highest priority"Kellie Wasko, director of clinical services for the prison system, said the department is taking steps to improve training for therapists and plans to detail a set of proposed reforms to legislative committees next month.
"Our goal is to get all those offenders through a risk assessment" to determine how many low-risk inmates the prisons hold, she said. "That is our current and highest priority."
Wasko said the department has been working with the auditors to identify problems it can correct without legislative action.
"We want to make sure people understand we took this evaluation very seriously," she said.
The sex-offender treatment program has about 41 full-time employees, a number that will climb by two next fiscal year, when its $3 million budget is set to rise 0.6 percent.
The audit found Colorado prisons can yearly accept just 675 of 3,959 sex offenders who are within four years of parole eligibility, leaving 3,284 unable to participate in treatment.
As a result, other sex offenders may be unable to get any treatment before their release "even if they present an exceptionally high risk" to the community, the audit said.
It noted that therapists and inmates alike described the treatment programs as "under-resourced," with little attention to individual needs and scant opportunity for private, individual therapy.
Anderson, who sponsored the 1998 law, said she was inspired to act after witnessing the pain, medical costs and years of therapy an acquaintance endured after being attacked by a serial rapist.
She defends the law today, saying problems with waiting lists and therapist training could be solved with adequate funding of treatment programs.
"It's all about money," she said. "I've known for some time that they haven't had enough money in the treatment budget."
Sen. Kent Lambert, a Republican on the budget committee, said he was disturbed to learn that "they're treating them all the same, giving them all the same training," in prison sex-offender treatment programs.
Deserving of attentionAnd if some therapists "are doing things that are so inappropriate that they're counterproductive, that's a problem," he said. "That's the kind of thing that really ought to get the department's attention."
A November corrections department report shows that 42 percent of the 1,797 sex offenders sentenced under the lifetime-supervision law had passed their parole-eligibility dates. Of the 168 paroled since the law passed, half were released the previous year. In some earlier years, the program paroled one inmate in 12 months.
Kepros attributes some of the increase in the number of sex offenders to the fact that inmates sentenced for other crimes can become classified as sex offenders for behavior inside the prison.
Many of those classifications involve men who become sexually abusive in prison. At the other extreme, Kepros said, one of her clients was given a sexual-misconduct write-up while taking part in a program that trains dogs to work with disabled people.
"The no-no," she said, "was letting the dog sleep on the bed."