Thursday, July 05, 2007

First Steps Toward Rationalizing Sex Offender Categories, With a Glitch

Michael at Corrections Sentencing wondered what I thought about the new sex offender ratings in Texas, but I'm afraid at the moment I simply don't know enough to have an opinion beyond what's been recently reported. He's right that from the media reports the change sounds positive.

Council on Sex Offender Treatment executive director Allison Taylor said if I emailed her, she'd send more detailed information after it was presented to the Council tomorrow. Fair enough - an open records request would take ten business days, anyway. The changes, she said, were mandated in an innocuous portion of the TDCJ Sunset statute that read:
Before an inmate who is serving a sentence for a sexual offense is discharged or is released on parole or mandatory supervision from the department, the department shall use the dynamic risk assessment tool developed by the Council on Sex Offender Treatment under Section 110.164, Occupations Code, to assign the inmate a risk level of low, medium, or high.
The only significant problem with that I see: Section 110.164 of the Occupations Code does not exist! Whoops! The Occupations Code ends at 110.163 and skips to 110.201.

Taylor hadn't noticed the glitch, but referenced me to Chapter 62 of the Code of Criminal Procedure where the new assessment tool's creation was mandated by law in 2005. (Here's the specific section for those with an interest.) I'm assuming that drafting error won't create problems - it's clear when you look at CCP 62.007 that that's the assessment tool the Sunset bill intended to reference.

Otherwise, without more detail, the main shortcoming of the law, in this writer's view, is that offenders who've already been released won't be re-evaluated - it's only for future releasees. For them, though, the new assessment tool will supplant a point system that penalized young offenders and others who posed little risk, while ignoring more significant risk factors.

Though I've not seen specifics on the new "dynamic assessment" tool, certainly our definitions need to be rationalized. But only projecting changes into the future won't reduce the bloated sex offender caseloads Texas has now - more than 45,000 people are currently listed in Texas sex offender rolls. At best it'll just slow the growth of an already overburdened system. But that's a lot better than living with a broken system ad infinitum.

Reported Emily Ramshaw in the Dallas News ("For some sex offenders, new categories," July 2):
Starting this week, the state will dramatically change its system for classifying sex offenders, after years of complaints that the current risk assessment overpenalizes young, low-level offenders and lets some of the worst slip through the cracks. ...

Rep. Jerry Madden, the Richardson Republican who serves as the House's criminal justice guru, said that although it would be ideal to re-evaluate all of the state's 45,000 sex offenders, the task is nearly impossible.

"I don't know how I would do that," he said. "I'm getting the people I want to get with this – the people who are being released now."

Rankings assigned by the current test – called the Static 99 – determine which offenders must publicly declare their crime and can affect everything from sex offenders' chances at employment to their housing options.

The test was designed to gauge recidivism rates in adult males, but Texas has consistently used it for all sex offenders since the late 1990s. Using a point system based on key questions, the offenders are placed in risk categories. For those considered the most dangerous, postcards listing their crime and information are mailed to their new communities every time they move.

But the single test, which bases its risk assessment on factors such as age, marital status, previous offenses and the victim's gender, can often be misleading even for adult male sex offenders. And it is stacked against juvenile offenders entering the adult prison system, who, because they are younger than 24 and unmarried, get two quick strikes against them.

By contrast, middle-aged female abusers – who tend to commit their crimes against members of their families – generally get very low risk scores. So do offenders charged with some heinous forms of non-contact child pornography.

For juveniles, women and child pornography offenders, "there's no research to show [the Static 99] is valid," said Allison Taylor, executive director of the Texas Council on Sex Offender Treatment. "It's easy to see a 48-year-old pedophile who comes out as low-risk – we see that all the time."

The distorted rankings can lead an 18-year-old with a minor crime record who has consensual sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend to be labeled a high-risk sex offender for life. Conversely, a 45-year-old married woman with a history of molesting her 5-year-old niece will often be ranked low-risk.

The result is that some predatory parolees are labeled low-risk and not forced to notify the community. Juvenile offenders with so-called "Romeo and Juliet" crimes wear these scarlet letters instead.

State officials will overhaul the current classification system to include several dynamic risk tests, a legislative mandate that treatment providers and criminal justice experts say is long overdue.

The new testing system, which should be adopted by the sex offender treatment council Friday, will use multiple tests, such as psychological evaluations, to gauge sex offenders' risk for further sexual crimes and other types of crimes, as well as determining which offenders need supervision.

Research shows that only 10 percent of the nation's sex offenders are predatory, Ms. Taylor said. With the new tools in place, "you will see a better accounting of who truly belongs there" in the high-risk category, she said, predicting that it will be more women and fewer juveniles.

More detail when I get it, but I'm glad see positive movement on this increasingly intractable problem.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm an RSO. My state doesn't have the ranking levels (other than SVP or non-SVP), but I've taken the various tests I've been able to find online (including the Static-99). Because of my age (and my offense was incest) I've always gotten a low-risk score. It sounds like this new Texas test will place more emphasis on the crime of origin. In other words, the test may not consider what kind of life you're leading now and will be based more on how henious the original crime was. While that will hurt people like me, I still think this is (or at least sounds like) a good move on Texas' part. I originally started researching the injustice of SO laws because of my personal frustration. I quickly realized that any injustice or tragedy applied to cases like mine pale in comparision to what's happening to juvenile offenders. That's the real injustice and tragedy. I would like attention brought to laws that effect me, but I'll happily wait my turn behind the juvenile offenders. The recent Romeo and Juliet law in Indiana is a good start (but only a start, it has some significant problems, such as not protecting "offenders" under 14 years old).