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Sex offenders in Utah often stay in prison months beyond their parole eligibility date because of a backlog of inmates awaiting treatment overseen by the Utah Department of Corrections, according to a state audit released Monday.
And when those inmates do receive therapy, the program is a "one-size-fits-all" model with an outdated curriculum and little risk assessment. Management and staff, too, lack oversight and accountability, auditors found, limiting the number of inmates who can receive care due to rampant inefficiency.
"The shortcomings are quite extensive," said Legislative Auditor General John Schaff. That adds up to a big problem when up to one-third of inmates are serving time for sexual offenses.
The proposed solution? To reduce the waiting list, low-risk sex offenders should seek treatment outside of prison as a condition of parole after serving their terms.
"These are offenders who really haven't violated anyone," Schaff said. "They've had [a conviction for] probably looking at child porn or something."
The treatment on parole recommendation was one of several offered to fix the ailing program, which spent $678,000 in fiscal 2016 to house inmates with extended incarcerations because of the delays in treatment. That is estimated to rise to $780,000 for 2017.
On average, 114 inmates complete the therapy requirements each year among the three facilities the Utah State Prison, Sanpete County Jail and San Juan County Jail with sex-offender programs administered by the Utah Department of Corrections. Up to 240 inmates participate in the program at a time, though it takes an average of 18 months to complete.
Of those currently in treatment, Schaff said, 37 percent are considered low-risk. In most cases, the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole requires therapy be completed before release from prison.
Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, requested the audit after hearing from Utah residents with family members behind bars who have yet to be accepted into the sex-offender program. As of October 2016, 83 inmates awaiting treatment should have already been enrolled to meet their parole deadlines.
"They were feeling that their relatives were just falling through the cracks," Dunnigan said. "They're just being warehoused and not offered an opportunity to complete the mandated treatments."
The audit suggests the backlog exists, in large part, due to mismanagement of the program by staff members who fail to comply with current practices, neglect to keep performance records, ineffectively allocate resources and rarely assess inmate progress.
"Some of the concerns we have are just that the management of the treatment is so poor," Schaff said. "Some therapists are not giving therapy at all and others are not giving very much therapy."
There has been a vacant psychologist position since August 2016, the audit reports, suggesting that noncompetitive pay keeps many qualified candidates from applying. Additionally, one of the eight therapists with the Utah Department of Corrections has not actually been working with any inmates through the sex-offender program for the past five years. Combined, those two positions could be resulting in treatment for 80 more cases at any given time what the legislative report calls "squandered opportunities."
Each therapist also currently spends just 12 hours a week providing care, with other time devoted to paperwork. The audit says that setup does not prioritize the needed level of attention to offenders.
The inmates in the program, regardless of risk level, complete the same 300 hours of treatment. That includes weekly group therapy sessions and classes focused on anger management and relapse prevention. Some of these instructions are more than 15 years old, the audit notes.
The treatment is intended to reduce recidivism rates, though the high-intensity therapy used to treat every level of offender could actually "increase the risk of reoffense" for individuals who committed low-level crimes. Instead, the report suggests, the prison should offer different classes and requirements based on an inmate's crime or allow low-level offenders to get treatment after their incarceration.
That would allow "hardcore and serious offenders" to move through the prison's treatment program and reduce the backlog, Schaff suggested.
During an interim meeting Monday of the Audit Subcommittee, Department of Corrections Executive Director Rollin Cook said the prison has already begun complying with the recommendations. He hopes to address all of the steps laid out in the evaluation in six to 12 months.
"I take full responsibility for the unfavorable outcomes identified by the legislative audit team," he said. "We failed in this particular area and moving forward we're going to fix it."
Less than a year ago, the department hired Victor Kersey, a former psychologist and clinical director of the sex offender program in the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, to serve as the Institutional Programming Division director.
Kersey outlined five tailored programs pre-treatment, low-risk, core treatment, treatment for those with disabilities and after-care to be created within the Department of Corrections following the audit recommendations.
The prison will also start offering individual therapy, which it currently does not provide.
The specialized program for inmates with disabilities comes after a "recent" lawsuit settled for $60,000, the audit notes, which involved an offender who was unable to work through treatment without accommodations that were not provided.
"They're being sued all the time," Schaff said. "What happens is [offenders with disabilities] go through the program and flunk out and they go through it again and they flunk out. They just can never get through the program."
Additionally, removing inmates from treatment "significantly contributes to the backlog," Kersey said. Currently, if prison staff pulls someone from therapy, the offender is placed back on the waitlist and must wait as long as 18 months to return to the program. Some 42 percent of inmates are pulled from therapy each year.
While the audit says that may be justified, it suggests the number is much higher than other states. Washington, for instance, removes just 7 to 8 percent. Kersey plans to make the treatment program less punitive so those who break guidelines can still participate without being kicked out and having to start over.
He also intends to increase the mandatory hours of therapy for high-risk offenders to 780 while simultaneously moving inmates through the system faster and more effectively.
The Board of Pardons and Parole which oversees the Utah correctional system indicated Monday it would consider how best to collaborate with the changes in its sentencing and release decisions.
After Corrections failed to keep up with internal audits and didn't address recommendations from a 2014 Utah Criminal Justice Center report, House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, questioned whether the department would actually adhere to the recommendations.
"How is that going to change? I'm concerned about the track record here," he said. "We haven't seen what we need to see the last five years."
Cook responded: "All we need is the opportunity to fix these things."
The audit recommends not allocating further funds to the department until it addresses the highlighted inefficiencies. The Office of the Legislative Auditor General will also follow up in coming years to determine what policies are implemented.