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The Horror of Our Failed Incapacitation Policies for Sex Offenders

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It seems fashionable lately for many scholars to decry our criminal justice polices surrounding sex offenders. Indeed, classifying all sex offenses - from adolescents who take nude pictures of themselves to the worst sex abuse imaginable - seems unwise. Moreover, the civil commitment of sex offenders seems problematic and encompasses an ominous trend to attribute biological causes as the root problem for so many antisocial behaviors, including sexual deviancy. And it is true that the "science" surrounding much of the sex offender debate is a minefield of pitfalls and spurious links.

But those criticisms and limitations do not mean that sex offenders are a minor risk and that all of the retributive rhetoric about them is misplaced. As many forensic psychologists know, conducting a risk assessment evaluation on a convicted sex offender often entails a lengthy tread into the world of recidivism, failed treatment programs, and eternal denial on the part of the offender. A recent, albeit, extreme story regarding the tragic case of Dylan and Shasta Groene demonstrates why public sentiment is so starkly in favor of heavy penalties and restrictions against sex offenders.

This story from today's Associated Press recounts the horrific story of the abduction of Shasta and Dylan Groene and Dylan's subsequent murder by lifelong sex offender Joseph E. Duncan III. As detailed in this curious and detailed blog, Duncan was no stranger to authorities. Outrageously, Duncan was apparently employed as a teacher's aid after: (1) disclosing to therapists that he had raped multiple children; (2) convicted of raping a 14 year old boy at gunpoint, beating him, and burning him with a lighted cigarette; and (3) rejected from sex offender treatment for lack of interest in rehabilitation. After a 14 year sentence, Duncan was paroled despite his failure to complete sex offender treatment and several infraction reports including some involving inappropriate sexual behavior. From there, Duncan's history is an encyclopedia of perversion, psychopathy, and an indictment against our criminal justice system's ability to manage and account for offenders with enormous risk factors for recidivism. Duncan even had the gall to start a pro-pedophilia blog which he continued to operate from jail.

People may scoff at the simplicity of risk assessment measures
such as the Static-99, but the truth is these instruments are reliable insofar as they measure known recidivism risk variables that time and time again show (or should have shown as with Duncan) that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. This inconvenient truth will bedevil our policy debates about sex offenders and helps explain why it is so difficult to generate public opinion to moderate our criminal justice system's approach to these offenders. We should avoid a "one size fits all" approach to the ever increasing defined population of sex offenders, but until those who advocate reform admit that in cases like Duncan and numerous others the system's best response would have been lifelong incapcitation early in his sadistic criminal career, the public opinion will only continue towards more punishment and retribution.

Update:

Corey Yung has this thoughtful reaction to this post. He asserts that "STATIC-99 is nothing like the MMPI or other more complete diagnostic tools." While the MMPI may have more studies behind it, the idea that it is somehow a more complete diagnostic tool is misplaced. First, the Static-99 and MMPI measure different constructs and serve different purposes. No reasonable clinician claims that the Static-99 provides a general personality overview; the Static-99 serves as a specific assessment tool related to recidivism risk for sex offenses. Second, while the MMPI may be a reliable and valid measure, the implied notion that Yung and others make that it is somehow a "gold standard" misjudges its utility: Rarely does the MMPI provide much insight to clinicians who use it which is one of its purported purposes; yet the Static-99 does seem to adequately measure recidivism risk among limited populations when matched with other assessment procedures which is exactly what it's designed to do.

2 Comments

What is truly unfortunate is that Duncan is, by no means, an aberration. Far too many dangerous sex offenders have been released back into society with predictable results.

I would only address the 2nd sentence of this post..."Indeed, classifying all sex offenses - from adolescents who take nude pictures of themselves to the worst sex abuse imaginable - seems unwise". The "rush" to appease the public when these horrific cases do happen has caused a complete and utter disregard for commons sense laws to deal with the problem. The premise that all sex offenses even be handles under Megan's Law was the first and most troubling knee-jerk reaction. Granted that most any sex offense is undesireable, can we now say that the laws that have consummed and swept this country are sensible, fair, equitable, and most important, non-problematic? The Courts are again bogged down with appeal after appeal, the ranks of law-enforcement and their budgets are bulging at the seams, municipalities are screaming "not in my back yard" relating to the urgent need to locate places of confinement for the cells to support "will be punishable by a term on imprisonment for no less than 18 months". The public is all for it now with highly publicized cases that emerge from the nightly news never seemingly to end. There will soon be a time wherein the criminal justice system and those charged with it's orderly execution will find themselves in a quandry. The individual who openly dated another individual who was a minor , or the individual who ventured into some pornographic venture IS NOT LIKE AN INDIVIDUAL WHO WOULD HARM A CHILD. There is NOTHING that any of the so called science related to quantifying a sex offender has shown wherein the underlying psychology of said individuals are the same nor that they should be treated in the same manner.

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