One of the most important things that policy wonks can use is the facts. With this in mind, on 25 March, I decided to bring 23 of my grad school classmates for a tour of my previous employer - the Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC). But we didn't tour any ordinary prison; we toured the Massachusetts Treatment Center (MTC), which is the state's prison that houses exclusively male inmates identified as sex offenders and those who have been civilly committed as sexually dangerous persons. Here is a bit of what we experienced.
Before we were allowed in, each of us was searched for contraband and went through a metal detector - anything foreign introduced into a prison can compromise the safety of the staff, as well as inmates. The director of treatment, Michael Thomas, provided the two-hour tour showing us the housing areas, treatment areas, the MassCor program, and much more. The MTC offers a "comprehensive sexual offender treatment program intended to reduce the risks associated with reoffending."
As of January 2011, there were about 1,350 sex offenders in the DOC, of which 620 were located at the MTC. There are many types of sex offenders, from those who urinate in public to sexual predators and pedophiles. Some are criminally sentenced inmates while others are civil commitments deemed too dangerous to release even though they have served their sentence.
When asked what could help MTC Superintendent Michael Corsini perform his mission better, he said that he needs more treatment resources. He stressed that treatment for sex offenders is not about the offender getting special attention. Rather, treatment is about public safety. The superintendent said that if we can use treatment as a way to reduce recidivism, we have an obligation to do just that. I agree.
Independent studies of the effectiveness of in-prison treatment programs for sex offenders have shown that evidence-based programs can reduce recidivism by up to 15 percent. This might not sound like much, but it is. Recidivism can be further reduced with post-release prison supervision, such as parole. However, our current policies make no sense; we release many offenders to the public without some form of post-release supervision. Studies show that post-release supervision helps decrease recidivism since it involves keeping an eye on the ex-offender, but also with assisting the ex-offender find a job, obtain drug treatment and find housing, all of which are important to staying crime free.
On the issue of housing, Corsini noted that this is the biggest challenge facing ex-sex offenders. "No one wants them and they have many legal obstacles when finding housing. And they have burnt all their bridges with society and even their family", said Corsini. To help reduce the chances of them reoffending, housing is important for every ex-offender.
A complicated but important distinction to understand is: while most sex offenders were themselves victims of a sex offense, most people who are victimized don't go on to being offenders.
It doesn't take much imagination to understand the horrors and damage caused by sex offenders. And it's hard to talk about the facts of any criminal behavior since misinformation is common and ideas contrary to misinformation are quickly associated as soft on crime. The nuances of any criminal behavior are complicated. For example, there is an inverse correlation between A) seriousness of offense and B) risk of recidivism. In this context, this means that relatively less serious crimes, such as property crime offenders, have a higher rate of reoffending. Meanwhile, the more serious crimes, such as sex offenders, have a relatively lower likelihood of reoffending.
Specifically, the rates of recidivism for a "property offender" is from 22 percent to 53 percent, depending on if there is a technical parole or probation violation or if it is for a new crime or not, whereas the rates of recidivism for sex offenders is from 2 percent to 22 percent, depending if the measure included technical violations of probation or parole or if it was for a new sex crime or non-sex crime. However you define recidivism, this completely flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but these are the facts.
There are some people who should never be released back into society and won't be. There are also some people who the MTC won't ever see again after the release. And yet there is a third group who has become institutionalized; they only know how to function in prison and so they actually want to stay in prison rather than be released. Meanwhile, the idea that we can "lock 'em all up and throw away the key" isn't based on a real strategy and hasn't been effective anywhere; it's a political slogan to score points for elections. Don't be fooled - serious problems don't have simple solutions.
PAUL HEROUX of Attleboro is a former director of research and planning at the Massachusetts Department of Correction, and currently a master's candidate at Harvard. He can be reached at Paul_Heroux@hks11.harvard.edu.