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In our guts, we have a picture of a sex offender. A sleazy old man who is interested in little else but prowling the streets, schoolyards and shopping malls in an insatiable search for yet another victim.

In our brains, not so much.

As state and local officials in Utah examine ways to bend the curve on the ever larger number of people who are in, or may be headed to, prison, they have expressed a reluctance to really address one of the primary drivers of our state's growing inmate population.

The Legislature's desire to put more sex offenders in prison for longer periods of time — in some cases mandatory sentences of 25 years — is a prime cause of the fact that other states' prison populations are going down as ours is going up.

The tougher sentences for sex offenders, especially those convicted of a sex crime against a child, have had so much of an impact on the number of prisoners that, as described by one member of the Board of Pardons and Parole, we may soon have room for only murderers and sex offenders.

But, while our lawmakers are well representing our fears, they appear to have failed to consider many of the facts about sex offenders as they attempt to represent our true interests.

Those facts include a low rate of recidivism — a 2003 federal study suggests that only 3 to 5 percent of sex offenders who are released from prison are arrested for another sex crime within three years of their release.

The same Bureau of Justice Statistics report says that nearly half of all child sex offenders' victims were the offender's own children or other relative, not a random stranger.

And Utah's own sex offenders file shows that the number of offenders who return to prison is cut in half for those who completed a treatment program while in prison.

Unfortunately, the Legislature has repeatedly refused to increase the amount of money it is willing to contribute to a successful sex-offender treatment program. The budget for that program has been frozen at $1 million a year since 1996.

As Gov. Gary Herbert and the Legislature consider plans to turn the current Utah State Prison over to developers and spend a ton of money building a new one, the state's Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice has been looking at ways that laws and programs might be improved so that the new prison doesn't fill up so fast, and doesn't leave taxpayers holding the bag for inmates who really do not need to be behind bars so long, if at all.

Their work will be undone if they do not push for at least significant hikes in the treatment budget and, more effectively, a new look at how sex offenders are sentenced.