Mass. juries, psychologists regularly clear sex offenders deemed no longer dangerous, record show
After two psychologists found that convicted child rapist Wayne Chapman was no longer sexually dangerous and could be released from a civil commitment that has kept him locked up after his criminal sentence ended, outraged victims of sex crimes and their advocates launched a campaign to keep him behind bars. Governor Charlie Baker responded by vowing to seek tougher penalties for some sex crimes against children.
But state Department of Correction figures show the release of criminals who were once deemed sexually dangerous is not unusual. Between 2009 and 2017, an average of 20 people were cleared for release each year after either a jury or two psychologists concluded they were no longer sexually dangerous.
And of those released between 2015 and last year, only one who was cleared by a pair of psychologists has gone back to prison, according to never-before-released data on recidivism.
The Globe also sought recidivism data for sex offenders cleared by juries, but the Department of Correction couldn’t provide it when asked.
Sex offenders who have completed their criminal sentences may remain in state custody at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater under a civil commitment law if they are found to still pose a danger to the public.
But they can also petition for their freedom. The law requires that sex offenders be released from civil commitment if two examiners determine they’re no longer sexually dangerous. If one examiner finds the sex offender still poses a threat, the matter proceeds to trial.
In Chapman’s case, two psychologists opined this spring that he isn’t likely to commit another sex offense if he is released from prison because of his advanced age and declining health.
Chapman, 70, has been in prison since the late 1970s when he was convicted of raping two boys in Lawrence. Lawrence police have called him a person of interest in the disappearance of 10-year-old Andy Puglisi in 1976, but he hasn’t been charged in connection with that case.
According to the Department of Correction, 49 sex offenders were released under similar circumstances between 2015 and 2017. The one who returned to prison was accused of stealing a motor vehicle, a prison spokeswoman said.
Overall, the prison system released 180 sex offenders from civil commitments between 2009 and last year, the Department of Correction said.
Of those offenders, 105 were cleared by examiners and the rest convinced a jury that they were no longer sexually dangerous, according to the statistics.
Another 174 sex offenders remained locked up because juries found they were still dangerous.
The statistics only cover Department of Correction facilities and do not include Massachusetts jails, which are run by county sheriffs. Recidivism data for sex offenders released from civil commitments prior to 2015 wasn’t available.
Attorney Eric Tennen, who represents Chapman in civil proceedings, said examiners aren’t indiscriminately clearing sex offenders.
“It’s not like they’re opening the doors to these people,” Tennen said. “Not just anybody can get to the point where two doctors are clearing them. Those are a group of men who really are the least likely to reoffend.”
Sex offenders who are cleared, he said, have responded well to treatment and many are old and infirm, making them less likely to commit another sex crime.
Chapman is not expected to be released soon. A Middlesex grand jury indicted him in June on charges of open and gross lewdness and lewd, wanton, and lascivious acts after he allegedly masturbated in front of prison workers at MCI-Shirley on June 3.
Chapman has pleaded not guilty and is being held on $25,000 bail. His trial is scheduled for Dec. 11, according to the Middlesex District Attorney’s office.
Attorney Wendy Murphy, who represents several of Chapman’s victims, said the prison system’s data is extremely limited because it only covers two years and doesn’t account for the possibility that the offenders committed new crimes that weren’t reported to the Department of Correction or other authorities.
Most sex crimes are never reported to police, she said.
“I’m not comforted by the absence of new arrests at all,” Murphy said. “I absolutely guarantee that your data does not include the very strong likelihood that there are other incidents.”
The Department of Correction declined to release the names of the sex offenders who have been released from civil commitment, saying that information is protected by the state’s criminal offenders’ records law.
The Boston Release Network, which helps freed sex offenders find housing, work, and health insurance, said it has assisted about 64 men since November 2016, most of whom were previously detained at the Massachusetts Treatment Center.
The network said none of those offenders have committed a new sex offense. Two offenders violated their probation — one for an alcohol-related infraction and the other for failing to report to a probation officer, said Bill Canavan, a Level 2 sex offender and paralegal who runs the program for the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition, a nonprofit in Boston.
Larni Levy, who leads a unit at the Committee for Public Counsel Services that specializes in civil proceedings affecting sex offenders, said it’s impossible to know whether those who are declared sexually dangerous persons get adequate treatment because the Department of Correction doesn’t track recidivism rates for that population.
“There’s no way to assess the efficacy of a program that the state is running without determining recidivism rates,” Levy said. “It’s important for everyone to know so we know if our clients are getting the best treatment and if the treatment is effective.”
Baker’s proposed legislation would revamp the civil commitment release procedure by establishing a five-member board to review requests for freedom from sex offenders.
If passed, disagreements among the panel over a sex offender’s fate would be settled at trial.
Lawmakers referred the proposal to be studied by a legislative committee. In a statement, a Baker spokeswoman urged the Legislature to pass the bill.
State Senator William Brownsberger, chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, said in an e-mail that the issue “genuinely does merit further study.”
The criminal justice reform package passed earlier this year established a commission to examine the criteria used to assess whether offenders are sexually dangerous and review the credentials required of examiners who make those determinations.