July 31, 2012

Predicting a predator's next move: Tracking Oregon's high-risk sex offenders

7-31-2012 Oregon:

The case of Adam Lee Brown, a notorious child sex abuser accused of attacking a 10-year-old boy in June while on Multnomah County supervision, has reignited debate over what it takes to manage sex offenders after their release from prison.

Of the roughly 500 to 600 sex offenders who leave Oregon prisons each year, only 4 percent are caught committing another sex crime in the state during their first three years of freedom, state records show.

The question faced daily by the state's sex offender management system: Who's going to be in the 4 percent?

Decades of research have turned sex offender management into a science, but the tools for assessing whether a predator such as Brown will re-offend remain imprecise.

In Oregon, parole officers rely on an assortment of methods. To help predict risk, they use internationally recognized screening tests that determine whether those on their caseload are at high, medium or low risk of re-offending.

To manage the risk, the officers require the offender to make regular visits to their office and attend sex abuse or substance abuse treatment. At the same time, the officers check up on the offenders through home visits, polygraph exams and electronic GPS monitoring.

And yet no risk assessment can reliably predict what a given individual will do, experts say.

"The risk tools are good, but the outcomes vary on factors that aren't in the model," said Karl Hanson, a research officer with Public Safety Canada and the creator of Static-99, the field's most widely used risk assessment test. "They're functional but imperfect measures, because we're missing some stuff."

Predicting a crime

When a sex offender is released from prison, the county responsible for his supervision tries to determine his risk of re-offending.

Overall, recidivism rates for sex offenders are low compared with people convicted of other types of felonies, though experts urge caution with recidivism estimates because many crimes are unreported or hard to prosecute.

Multnomah County parole officers such as Tracey Madsen, who was supervising Brown, rely on risk assessments to guide their approach to a typical caseload of 45 sex offenders.

For nearly a decade, Oregon has used Hanson's test, Static-99. The test rates each offender based on factors such as number of prior sex offenses, prior nonsexual violence and whether victims were strangers or relatives. The test is used only for men because the number of female sex offenders is so low that data on their recidivism are considered unreliable.

The test measures probabilities, not certainties. Offenders deemed low-risk, with a chance of re-offense at 4 to 8 percent, can and do commit new sex crimes. And within the highest risk group, whose chances of re-offense are 21 to 38 percent, there's no telling who will and won't attack again.

As the name suggests, Static-99's predictions of risk do not change over time, because they reflect only the person's history up to his release.

Six months into an offender's supervision, Multnomah County parole officers start giving other tests to measure more fluid characteristics.

"If they're going to treatment and are in a positive, pro-social support system, those people are doing things to reduce their risk," said Patrick Schreiner, district manager who oversees sex offender supervision for Multnomah County Department of Community Justice.

Experts in sex offender management say they're much more concerned about a low-risk offender who is in an unstable situation than a high-risk offender with a stable life.

The Stable test, performed annually, considers social influences: Who is part of the offender's life? Does he have a substance abuse problem? Is he homeless? It factors in any "intimacy deficits": Is he in a stable relationship? It measures cooperation: Is he reporting to his parole officer and complying with treatment?

Last, the Stable test considers the offender's sexual "self-regulation" and attitudes toward sexual assault, attempting to assess whether he can control his sexual thoughts. If the answer is no, it's a hugh red flag.

"That's a lifetime problem," said Schreiner. "You can learn tools to address it, just like an alcoholic can learn tools to address substance abuse. But those sex offenders have a lower rate of success."

The third test, the Acute, is given monthly. It examines factors such as an offender's access to potential victims, any "emotional collapse" due to a job or relationship loss and high levels of sexual preoccupation.

"We're going to talk to them every time we see them about how often they're masturbating, how often they're using porn," Schreiner said.

Containing the risk

No consensus exists on how to manage a sex offender once his level of risk is known, but Oregon and other states rely on what's called a "containment" approach to encircle the offender with many layers of control.

A network of professionals -- not simply parole officers, but treatment providers, landlords and police -- regularly share what they know about the offender's activities.

"We're not counting on the officer to be the only one having contact with them," Schreiner said.

In Multnomah County, once a sex offender is declared high-risk, as Brown was, a parole officer wants to see the offender at least twice a month at his or her office. Although the county used to expect its parole officers to make a prescribed number of home visits to each offender, its policy is being revised to give parole officers greater discretion to determine who requires more frequent visits.

If one offender is participating in treatment and making his office visits and another is not, then the noncompliant offender should be visited more frequently, supervisors said.

Scott Taylor, director of Multnomah County's Department of Community Justice, said specialized training for parole officers who supervise sex offenders is crucial.

"It takes some real specific knowledge," he said, "so they can see things where you and I might not."

Catching a lie

Lie detector tests and electronic monitoring also play a central role in the containment model. Their usefulness is under debate.

Lie detector tests have been used on sex offenders in Oregon for more than 20 years. Multnomah County expects a "full-disclosure polygraph" be done within an offender's first six months of supervision to delve deeply into an offender's background, beyond what's known at conviction. Then a "maintenance" polygraph is done every six months to check whether the offender had contact with minors, abused drugs or accessed pornography.

Research into polygraph testing on sex offenders is relatively new, and the results are mixed. James Konopasek, a polygraph examiner in The Dalles, has found that those who passed a full-disclosure polygraph within a year of being released were 25 percent less likely to re-offend.

But Roger Cook, a polygraph examiner based in Tualatin, studied the same test last year and found it virtually useless.

Polygraph testing may actually be counterproductive, Cook said. The threat of being tested can drive some offenders into hiding, he said, while a passed polygraph test can lull parole officers into a false sense of security.

In Brown's case, shortly after his release from prison in 2004, the right question wasn't asked in a polygraph after he walked up to young girls walking home from school in Douglas County. He was asked whether he'd had any sexual contact with minors, and he passed, saying no. If he'd been asked whether he had any contact with minors, the result might have been different.

Surveillance tools

An ankle bracelet used to electronically monitor an offender's location via GPS is costly but can be effective, studies show. It was recommended for Brown this year before his alleged attack on a 10-year-old boy, but not used.

Multnomah County uses two types of monitoring: passive and active. With passive monitoring, no one tracks the offender in the moment; if there's a violation, a parole officer may get a notice the next day.

Under active GPS monitoring, a text message is sent to a parole officer when an offender goes somewhere he should not be. But there's no staff working 24/7 to pick up the violations. During off-hours, an alert goes to an office, where operators try to contact the offender's parole officer.

Round-the-clock monitoring would be too costly, Multnomah County officials said. They argue that if offenders thumb their noses at supervision, GPS isn't going to alter their behavior. Currently, 35 sex offenders are on GPS in Multnomah County; of those, 31 are actively monitored.

County officials are reviewing why Brown didn't get GPS, but they doubt it would have made a difference.

"This guy would have cut it off," Schreiner said. "It wouldn't have changed anything, I don't think. Unless he was motivated to work with the PO, GPS isn't going to do anything."

A study released this year of high-risk sex offenders in California found that GPS helps reduce recidivism.

In November 2006, California passed Jessica's Law, which mandated that all sex offenders be placed on GPS supervision for life.

The report found the GPS program costs roughly $35.96 a day per parolee, compared with $27.45 under traditional supervision. However, the GPS group was more likely to comply with the conditions of supervision and less likely to re-offend.

Taylor pledged the county will review Brown's supervision. "If we see any patterns or problems that stand out," he said, "we'll make adjustments."

A different path

Although Oregon relies on treatment, office visits and electronic devices to manage sex offenders, officials elsewhere have experimented with other approaches, ranging from the innovative to the extreme.

In Kansas, Minnesota and Washington, sex offenders may be civilly committed indefinitely to a mental institution after they've completed their criminal sentences. A judge must find by "clear and convincing evidence" that the prisoner engaged in sexually violent conduct, suffered from mental illness and would have difficulty controlling himself.

A pilot project in Canada, meanwhile, took a different direction. It found that using trained volunteers to make daily contact with high-risk offenders, when combined with treatment and supervision, can reduce recidivism by 70 percent.

No definitive studies have been done to show which method of sex offender management works the best. But international experts in the field say all of the major techniques currently in use have some effect.

"If the offender is planning and has a strong intention to offend, there's not much you can do," said Hanson, who devised the Static-99 test. "What you're largely working with is making it appear unattractive for them to go that route." ..Source.. by Maxine Bernstein, The Oregonian

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