Changing sex offender law needs to be evidence-based
Massachusetts is hardly soft on sex offenders, being one of only 20 states and the District of Columbia that incarcerate people convicted of sex offenses after they’ve completed their criminal sentences based on what they might do in the future. This practice is so antithetical to our Constitution that sexually dangerous person laws require careful calibration.
In the nearly 20 years this law has been in effect, some have been released because they’re no longer dangerous — having either progressed in treatment or become too old, too sick, or too debilitated to reoffend. An analysis of statistics gathered from annual reports of the Massachusetts Treatment Center between 2008 and 2017 reveals only approximately 17 percent of those examined during this nine-year period have been released when both qualified examiners found them no longer sexually dangerous.
The Boston Release Network, an organization that promotes public safety by helping returning citizens reintegrate into the community, notes that of the 59 individuals using their services, none have committed or even been arrested for a new sex offense. In fact, sex offenders have one of the lowest recidivism rates of all offenders — 87 percent of offenses committed each year are by first- time offenders, 93 percent committed against children are by people known to the child, and people over 60 have a 2 percent recidivism rate.
Wayne Chapman committed heinous offenses against children. For more than 40 years he’s been in custody, serving a lengthy prison sentence followed by sexually dangerous person civil commitment. It wasn’t until this year that two experts agreed that he cannot manage his basic needs without assistance, and doesn’t have the ability to reoffend, due to degenerative Parkinson’s disease.
The examiners making these judgments are appointed by the court and meet rigorous standards established by law. Many have interviewed hundreds, if not thousands, with sex offense convictions, with no evidence that their decisions failed to optimize the safety of the Commonwealth. Chapman is facing new allegations. He has been charged with open and gross lewdness and lewd, wanton, and lascivious conduct at MCI-Shirley. He pleaded not guilty to the charges on Monday. He will not be released from prison until these allegations are resolved. Keeping a person behind bars for prior offenses despite findings by two examiners that he’s no longer sexually dangerous is a violation of the Constitutional rights that protect us all.
Sensationalized media reports would have one think that the floodgates have opened and dangerous people are streaming out of the treatment center. There is zero evidence that, after being found no longer sexually dangerous by two examiners, individuals who are released ultimately reoffend. Why aren’t data critical to the legislation of smart and effective policy available? The Department of Correction could gather data to answer this question, but it doesn’t. In fact, in a recent public records request, it confirmed that it doesn’t collect data on recidivism of inmates released from the Massachusetts Treatment Center.
If one fully acknowledges the suffering of victims, there’d be a demand for more resources for victims and survivors, and widespread public pressure to prevent all forms of sexual violence before anyone is harmed. Yet we focus the vast majority of available resources on small numbers of sex offenders who are already highly regulated by the state.
A bill filed by Governor Charlie Baker expands existing efforts by spending millions of dollars on trials of a relatively few while doing nothing to address the prevention of the vast majority of sex crimes against children and adults. A far more prudent approach to reduce the incidence of sex crimes and prevent future victims would be to focus on preventing sexual crimes committed by someone with no previous history of sexual offense, thereby focusing our resources and energy smartly.
The governor prides himself on making evidence-based decisions, but his legislation would significantly change existing law without data to support the need for reform. Further, the Legislature recently created a commission to review the qualifications and reliability of examiners and explore moving toward an evidenced-based approach that tracks outcomes.
Quick fixes now make no sense when a well-considered approach is pending. Before incurring enormous costs to the Commonwealth to “fix” a law that isn’t broken, the governor and Legislature should prioritize data collection and review.
Anthony Benedetti is chief counsel of the Committee for Public Counsel Services. Laurie Guidry is chair of the Public Policy Committee for the Massachusetts Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.