Longer Stays for Utah Sex Offenders

SALT LAKE CITY — Inmates in Utah are seeing longer stays in the state’s prisons — an average of three months longer behind bars since 2011. The problem is due to an increase of inmates and not enough funding for treatment programs, especially for sex offenders.

The Utah Department of Corrections will reach its bed capacity in 2015 and needs a new facility to place its maximum-security inmates. Corrections Director Tom Patterson recently asked the Utah Legislature for a $30 million expansion of the prison in Gunnison. Patterson is also asking for more funding to include treatment options for inmates.

Many of Utah’s convicted sex offenders don’t have access to treatment programs, as the Utah Legislature hasn’t increased funding for sex offender treatment since 1996. More sex offenders are incarcerated as well; the population has increased 150 percent since 1996 and it makes up one-third of Utah’s prison population to date.

Since treatment options aren’t available to many of the sex offender inmates, it is nearly impossible for those inmates to be granted parole. The Utah Board of Pardons and Parole will not release any of the offenders until they have received some kind of treatment to reduce recidivism.

“We have taken a number of parole dates away from offenders because they didn’t complete treatment,” said Jesse Gallegos, Utah parole board member, in a recent statement.

Many inmates looking to enter a treatment program can’t since there isn’t any room in any of the programs. Gallegos believes that additional funding for treatment could reduce both the length of stay in prison and the likelihood parolees may commit crimes prior to release.

“We feel empathy for the offender because clearly they want to get on with their lives and be reunited with their families, but I also understand the reality of what DOC is going through,” Gallegos said in a statement.

Staying in Prison
Although sex offenders in Utah’s prisons will still have to serve their sentences, once they receive treatment they are typically released from incarceration unless there are underlying circumstances. However, that’s not the case for the dozens of inmates sent to the Federal Correctional Complex at Butner in Butner, N.C.

Some sex offenders are being housed at Butner after completing their sentences for fear of what they might do after release. Under a federal law, inmates may be required to stay incarcerated after they’ve completed their sentence if the government deems them too dangerous to be released to the public.

The law, or civil commitment process, isn’t new. Since 2006, at least 136 sex offenders were required to be held beyond their release date, by the U.S. Department of Justice — although now almost half the attempts have been rejected by courts or dropped by the government.

“The law doesn’t seem fair to me,” said John Keating Wiles, an attorney in Raleigh, N.C., who has represented several of the men. “Traditionally, we don’t take away people’s liberty because they might commit a crime.”

The law has brought on several lawsuits, including the first suit brought on by convicted sex offender Graydon Comstock, who was serving time for receiving child pornography and later told he was too dangerous to be released from prison. A federal court later determined that Comstock did not qualify for the previous ruling and he was released from prison.

Many lawyers for those detained believe their clients are not a threat to the public and are looking to have their clients released. Currently, in the Eastern District of North Carolina, a visiting judge from Michigan has been brought in and several district judges have been assigned to help clear a backlog of cases stacked up in the first four years after the law was passed.

Sex offenders face many challenges inside a correctional facility and are often times targets for physical attacks.

An inmate who was scheduled for release in November 2006 now awaits a hearing to determine whether or not he’s sexually dangerous, is suing the DOC for more than $50 million for emotional pain and suffering.

Many sex offenders at Butner are being held because they are mentally ill, yet few have enrolled in the sexual offender treatment program. Unlike the program in Utah, there are open spaces for inmates at Butner but some have now lost sight of the light at the end of the tunnel.

“In general, sex offenders are seen as different,” said Eric J. Brignac, a federal public defender involved in many of the cases. “I think, in part, it is because we see them as incurable.”