November 17, 2015

Brunswick looks to extend rehab program for sex offenders

11-17-15 North Carolina:

BOLIVIA -- Brunswick County is trying to renew its grant funding for a sex offender rehabilitation program that might be the only one of its kind in the South.

This week the board of commissioners signed off on the courts' applying for a $200,000 grant that would fund the Sex Offender Accountability Rehabilitation Court and Domestic Violence Court for a year or two. The measure passed four to one, with Commissioner Pat Sykes casting the lone no vote.

Most of the commissioners approved of the court after learning that it would not import sex offenders who were convicted elsewhere to Brunswick County. Sykes, though, grilled Ola Lewis, the senior resident Supreme Court judge who oversees the program, on various details -- including the county's liability if a participant commits another sex crime and whether funding it would take away from victim therapy.

"My main concern is having grant money that is constantly available for the defendant, but nothing is for the victims," Sykes said.

Officials with the court agreed with Sykes that treatment for victims is also important, but noted that funding is available through victim advocacy programs. They also said the knowledge that their attackers are seeking help can be a relief to some victims.

"We teach (offenders) victim empathy and victim impact and how they are going to prevent another victim," Katherine Henderson, a Wilmington therapist who has worked with offenders in the program, said Monday in response to Sykes.

Since September 2012, 17 people have participated in the program, which is modeled on drug courts. For a full year, participants attend biweekly court sessions, weekly therapy and have multiple visits with a probation officer per month.

Of those, 17, 11 have successfully completed the program, said Carrie Menke, Brunswick County's mental health treatment court coordinator. One person participating in the program was "discharged" after committing another sex offense, she said.

Lewis, who said the program is the only one of its kind south of the Mason-Dixon Line, told the commissioners there are currently 10 people in the sex offender rehabilitation program.

Many sex offenders in Brunswick County find it difficult to afford or travel to court-mandated treatment, Menke said, creating the necessity for the rehabilitation court.

"Offenders just weren't going to the treatment," she said, "which gets them a probation violation, which gets them revoked, which gets them sent to prison, which costs huge amounts of money and they're still not getting treatment."

Preston Hilton, a Supply defense attorney who works with the treatment courts, said defendants who don't receive treatment are often caught in a cycle of crime and punishment without addressing the root causes of their actions. There are 197 registered sex offenders in Brunswick County, including the 10 currently in the program.

"If the concern is the victim, then in my mind there are 187 more sex offenders who need to be in our treatment court," Hilton said.

Other than Sykes, the commissioners on Monday praised the drug court. Commissioner Randy Thompson praised Lewis and other court employees for setting a model.

"I understand needing to step out and do a program where it's not offered somewhere else," he said. "It takes a lot to be that individual who steps out."

Commissioner Marty Cooke agreed with Thompson, noting that it can be difficult to try to innovate in a government setting.

"I can't see anything other than just great praise for what you're trying to accomplish," Cooke said.
by Adam Wagner, StarNews Staff

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