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Sex Offenders and Public Safety: A Four-Part Series

The public often hears news about sex offenders who commit the most serious crimes, but many of the sex offenses you don’t hear about – while disturbing – were not violent. In Virginia, for example, inappropriate touching, texting a lewd photo or using X-rated language in front of a minor can land people on Virginia’s sex offender registry.

Part I: The Long-term Consequences Of A Sex Offense Conviction

In part one of a series, Sandy Hausman reports on the consequences. To protect the identity of an alleged victim, we’ve changed names in this first report.

In 2007, Debby and Don Delaney were living in a suburb of Richmond.  He was employed by a local utility and she was an interior decorator.  Debby says they were on good terms with their neighbors and tried to help one family in particular.

She says, “A recently widowed neighbor who had two teenaged children asked my husband and I if we could take her elderly dog in to be euthanized the following week, and the teenaged daughter overheard the conversation and was very upset, and we told her it was the right thing to do.  We’ve had many dogs ourselves.  It’s one of the hardest things to do as a dog owner, but it’s a humane and necessary act at some point if they’re not healthy and not happy.”

But one day before they were supposed to take the dog, she says, a sheriff’s deputy arrived at their door to question Don.  The neighbor’s daughter had accused him of doing something inappropriate. 

He doesn’t like to talk about it, but Debby is still outraged by what happened next.

“We interviewed multiple attorneys, and as soon as they all heard it was Hanover County they said any sort of accusation by a female minor is going to be prison time for sure. You could spend $50,000 or $150,000, and the outcome is going to be the same in Hannover County.”

He was charged with aggravated sexual battery – inappropriate touching. The prosecutor offered a deal – something called an Alford plea, in which a defendant can deny guilt but admit there’s enough evidence to convict.  In this case, the Delaney’s were told, the evidence was the young woman’s claim. 

“We had 5-10 minutes to decide if he wanted to take a plea deal for one misdemeanor, go home, pay some court costs, not serve a day in jail, be a registered sex offender for 10 years, and then be able to petition the court for removal in ten years.”

Don took the deal, but continues to maintain his innocence. Because the case never went to trial, we can’t say whether he actually committed a crime, but his fate illustrates just how harsh Virginia laws can be. 

Delaney’s name, photograph, address and employer’s name are on the state’s sex offender registry – information regularly verified by state police at a cost to taxpayers of more than $8 million a year.      

“They’re coming to our home twice a year to make sure his residence is correct,” says Debby. “And if he was to change a job or lose a job, they would go and confirm that he actually no longer either works there or has just begun working there, which always goes over well with a brand new employer when a state trooper shows up at their place of business.”

Those on the registry must report regularly to police or parole officers.  Some can’t live within 500 feet of a school or daycare center, and others are barred from dropping their own children at school, attending plays, concerts or graduation. 

Of course some sex crimes are truly horrific, but others involve people who texted an X-rated photo or exposed themselves in public. Delegate Rob Bell, a former commonwealth’s attorney, trusts prosecutors to distinguish between the serious and the stupid.

“We did a study of this on the crime commission based on theoretical concerns and found that while those offenses are, in many cases, eligible to be charged as more serious sex offenses, prosecutors were doing a good job of separating out creation of child porn from two teenagers going back and forth, boyfriend, girlfriend, one is 18, one is 17 – that kind of thing.”

And he says measures like the sex offender registry and residential restrictions are necessary to protect the public.

“Preventing one of these crimes has enormous good impact, because no matter how much good counseling you do, no matter how much peer-to-peer survivor support you have, there are people that will never be the same.”

But critics say Virginia’s sex offender policies are costly and don’t make the public safer. In our next report, we’ll tell you why. 

II The Registry: Cost And Consequences?

The state of Virginia spends more than $8 million a year to maintain a sex offender registry – showing photos of people convicted of crimes, telling what they did, where they live and where they work.  This online resource is popular with the public and politicians, but some social scientists say it provides a false sense of security and may be a waste of money.  Sandy Hausman tells why.

Part 2 in Sandy Hausman's series.

J.P. Welch never gave much thought to sex offenders until a member of his family was convicted of a sex crime. He won’t say what the man did, but inappropriate touching, texting a lewd photo or exposing yourself can land you on Virginia’s sex offender registry.

Welch did some homework and discovered people convicted of these crimes are unlikely to do it again. 

“Many studies show that the rates of re-offending for sex offenders is one of the lowest of any category of crime.  The myth has been perpetuated at the highest levels. A Supreme Court justice has called the recidivism rate ‘frighteningly high,’ and that’s just not true.”

At Virginia Commonwealth University, Criminal Justice Professor Christina Mancini says studies have tracked sex offenders five years out, and found only a small percentage committing new sex-related crimes.

“The longer you follow an offender for any crime, the higher the recidivism rate will be, but even on the high end, what data suggests is most offenders will not go on to re-offend.  I’ve seen it as low as five percent. I’ve seen it as low as five percent.”

That doesn’t persuade state Delegate David Albo.  He just wants to know who lives next door.

He says, “I have a kid in my house.  I’d like to know if somebody on my block had been convicted of child molesting.”

Delegate Rob Bell

And Delegate Rob Bell shares the belief that aggressive post-conviction monitoring is needed to prevent future crimes.

“Even at five percent given the number of sex offenders that are out there, that is a large number of other Virginians, other children that are the victims of sex offenses from these offenders.”

Whether you buy that argument or not, the question remains – are registries the right tool for protecting the public?  They’re intended to warn communities about strangers – people the neighbors don’t know.  In fact, those people are rarely responsible for sex crimes according to Brenda Jones, Executive Director of the National Association for Rational Sexual Offense Laws.

Jones explains, “Over 90% of new offenses are somebody who’s never been convicted, so knowing where the convicted person is doesn’t help, and 90% or more are people that are known.”

Relatives or friends of the family, babysitters, clergymen and others who are acquainted with and trusted by their victims.

Professor Mancini adds that registries are not effective for another reason.

“While the public is very supportive of them, the public tends not to visit them regularly.  Only about one in three will go on to a registry at all, and we have very little data on the frequency of use, and that’s important too.  These are continually updated.” 

Nor do most people take action after checking the registry. Mancini continues, “They don’t talk to their kids about stranger danger or neighbors who may be offenders.”

So if current policies don’t make us safer, what do they accomplish? Michael Miner is director of research and professor of human sexuality at the University of Minnesota.  He says registries do little more than stigmatize people -- nearly 23,000 of them here in Virginia.  After they’ve served time in prison and gone through treatment programs, Miner says they battle a range of problems.

“Social isolation, difficulty finding jobs, trouble getting into schools, disruption in their education, families having to move.  There are lots of negative impacts.”

But the greatest restriction involves a group of offenders confined for years – even a lifetime – after serving their sentence in prison.  In our next report, we’ll take you to a multi-million dollar facility in rural Nottoway County where people convicted of sex crimes are held indefinitely. 

III The Checklist That Can Keep You In Custody Indefinitely

In theory, Americans who complete a term in prison are free to move on – to turn over a new leaf, but in Virginia there are some criminals who can be locked up indefinitely after serving a prison sentence.  Sandy Hausman has details

Minority Report is a film starring Tom Cruise – a character arrested for a crime the state believes he will commit in the future.

The story is, of course, science fiction, but here in Virginia there are some people we lock-up because mental health experts think they might someday commit another crime.

Take 60-year-old Ken Tucker. He’s been sober for more than 15 years, but back when he was a drinking man he got into a fight with his sister-in-law.

Tucker explains. “She was an alcoholic also, and you get two alcoholics together, it’s not a pretty scene, and I pushed her out of the way.  I didn’t hurt her, and they said I touched her breast when I pushed her, so that gave me a sex offense.” 

The prosecutor offered him a deal.

“If you’ll plead guilty to misdemeanor sexual assault, we’ll give you six months suspended time and you can go home this evening.” He said of this deal, “Where do I sign?”

Later, Tucker was charged with aggravated sexual battery – inappropriate touching of a minor.  He did time in prison and went through a treatment program for sex offenders, but a panel of mental health experts felt Tucker was still a danger to society, so on release from prison a judge sent him to the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation in rural Nottoway County.

Here, just over 400 men live in a cinderblock building surrounded by razor wire. Their days are filled with group therapy, education, vocational training and low-skill jobs that pay 50 cents an hour.  Their nights are spent in small rooms, two men sharing 87 square feet.

The decision to commit a sex offender for an indefinite period of time is based on something called the Static-99.

“Essentially it’s just a very simple, one-page checklist,” says Karen Franklin, a forensic psychologist from California.

“It’s got ten items which can be answered based on information in the offender’s case file, like age, number of past violent convictions, whether any of the victims were male and so on.”

The name Static-99 refers to the fact that it considers things a person cannot change and it was introduced in 1999, but Delegate David Albo may have gotten a different idea when he heard about this tool – and backed legislation to open the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehab.

Albo says, “People can predict, within 99.99 percent certainty, whether someone is going to recommit.”

In fact, Karen Franklin says the Static-99, which compares other people who’ve scored a certain way with whether they went on to commit new sex crimes, provides no certainty. 

She elaborates, “Basically the Static-99 is a little bit more accurate than the flip of a coin.+ 5 – You know, bottom line, predicting any kind of future human behavior is going to be complex, because we’re not machines, and we can decide to change course, and these algorhythms are blind to that.”

She notes that African-Americans tend to score higher on the test – one possible reason why 55% of VCBR residents are black.  It also overestimates risk for re-offense by gay men and older individuals.

When Virginia opened the Center for Behavioral Rehab 14 years ago, experts knew that people were less likely to commit certain crimes as they got older, but Delegate Rob Bell thought senior citizens were just as likely as younger people to commit additional sex crimes.

Bell says, “Armed robbery as you get older, the idea of running into a liquor store with a gun for $200, which sounds exciting when you’re 20 – literally you can see it – it’s fascinating. Paper crimes meaning fraud, not so much and then sex crimes, not so much.  You don’t see an aging out.”  

But studies now confirm that older people are far less likely to commit sex offenses.

Psychologist Karen Franklin says, “Risk goes down with age.  It goes down dramatically with age.”

The Static-99 also glosses over a fundamental difference between sex crimes committed by kids and adults.

Franklin says, “What we’re finding is that adolescents that commit sex offenses, they generally don’t have entrenched patterns of sexual deviance.  In other words they’re not going to grow up and be pedophiles or rapists.  The broad majority of adolescent sex offending is based on developmental immaturity.  These are boys mainly with poor impulse control and even worse judgment and then they’ve got raging hormones, and it can lead to sexual acting out, and it’s really time limited.”

And, finally, the test fails to separate those who’ve committed truly heinous crimes from those who have looked at pictures.

Franklin continues, “What we know so far about child pornography offenders – and this is a really new area for research – is that men who’ve been charged with child pornography offenses are at extremely low risk both for even committing another child pornography offense, but their risk of actually going out and sexually molesting a real child is about two percent.”

Since it opened, the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation has released just over 200 people, but many more have arrived to take their place, and management is now asking for $115 million to expand.  In our next report, we’ll find out what goes on at the VCBR and whether taxpayers are getting what they’ve paid for. 

IV The  Expensive Treatment That Might Prevent A Future Crime

Virginia’s Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation houses more than 400 men who have served time for sex offenses but are judged by psychologists to pose a future risk to the public. Yesterday we questioned the accuracy of a test that determines who can be locked up there.  Today, we explore whether treatment at the center is effective.

Men confined to the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation spend their days in group therapy, working jobs that pay 50 cents an hour, taking classes, reading and watching TV.  As they go through their days, everyone on the staff watches them and reports on their behavior.   

Anita Schlank is Clinical Director of the center – a PhD psychologist who’s been treating sex offenders for 30 years.

She says, “They have to do more than learn things about themselves.  They have to demonstrate through their behavior that they're incorporating it into behavior change.

They’re showing that they’re able to refrain from physical aggression, sexual acting out, illegal behaviors, not having dangerous contraband, and appropriate use of their leisure time, the ability to delay gratification – things like that.”

Schlank says it’s not unusual for sex offenders to deny any responsibility for what happened, and part of the treatment is getting them to step up.

“Sometimes they think what they did was not wrong.  There's nothing bad about it, so by helping them see the harm they have caused that can help them become motivated for change.  Sometimes they've given up on themselves and we can help them see what makes life worth living.”

Since it opened in 2007 more than 200 people have been treated and released.  Fewer than three percent have come back after committing new sex crimes, but some studies show that rate isn’t much lower than what you’d see with offenders who were not treated.

Forensic psychologist Karen Franklin recalls a case in Florida where sex offenders were freed by a legal technicality.

“And then they were followed in the community for ten years.  There were 140 of these guys, and they re-offended at a rate of only about 3.6%.”

She blogs about laws and policies governing sex offenders, and she’s skeptical of programs like Virginia’s Center for Behavioral Rehab.

“There’s a lot of very sham practices that are going on where individuals with no mental abnormalities whatsoever are being labeled as mentally ill based on bogus diagnoses.”

Ken Tucker agrees.  He spent just under three years in prison, where he got psychological treatment and was then confined to the VCBR for five years.

“After a while you want to scream.  I’m so tired of hearing thinking errors, black and white thinking, compartmentalization.  It’s all becoming psycho-babble to me.”

At Virginia Commonwealth University, Christina Mancini also has doubts.  She’s a professor of criminal justice, and she fears there’s too little oversight at state run facilities like the VCBR.

She says, “That’s really been a black box. What types of treatment are they given?  What’s happening in these centers?” 

What we do know is that their populations are growing. VCBR director Jason Wilson explains.

“The original facility was built to house 300 individuals.  The General Assembly in 2012 mandated that we double bunk 150 additional rooms, so that gave us a capacity of [an extra] 450 individuals. We’re reaching near capacity.”

A proposed expansion will cost more than $115 million.  The state is already spending $35 million a year for operations – just under $300 a day for each resident, and as the population ages, the medical costs to care for elderly offenders will push that number up.

The question for lawmakers and the people they represent is whether it’s worth the expense.  Yes – some people are a danger and may need to be committed against their will, but it’s difficult to say if we’re holding men who need to be at the center, those who could be safely treated in the community or people who pose no real danger. 

Sex Offender Registry: Cost And Consequences

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief