The Hippo


May 28, 2020








Sex offender treatment under review
Audit will assess claims of mismanagement

By Ryan Lessard

 The sex offender treatment program at the state prison will be undergoing an audit, based on concerns that the program is poorly run and underfunded. 

Meanwhile, those who run the program say that while potential suggestions and improvements are welcome, the concerns that prompted the audit are largely unfounded.
The audit plan
The sex offender treatment program is a series of courses and therapy groups for inmates designed to foster empathy, develop coping skills, and identify and fix bad behavioral patterns to help prevent the inmates from acting on the kinds of urges that led to their convictions. It also involves working with licensed counselors and a thorough assessment process that may involve a polygraph test before an inmate graduates.
The purpose of the audit is to investigate claims that potential parolees are getting stuck in prison longer due to lack of access to the prerequisite treatment program. Advocates calling for the audit suggest that there are more than 100 inmates on track to reach their minimum sentence by this summer without having completed treatment. Corrections officials and program coordinators, however, say inmates are getting treated in a timely manner, with a few exceptions caused by some inmates’ bad behavior, which may delay access or prevent graduation.
The Joint Legislative Performance Audit and Oversight Committee voted to fast-track an audit of the program after a push by the Citizen’s for Criminal Justice Reform group. The group had initially lobbied for a more detailed look at the program to be conducted as part of a bill that passed the House but was killed in the Senate, according to Chris Dornin at CCJR. 
Sen. John Reagan of Deerfield said the audit request never should have been a bill in the first place, which is why the Senate killed it and sent it over to the audit committee instead. After the audit committee reviewed the request, it found it had sufficient merit to move forward.
“They would never have done it without our organizing a big fight over this,” Dornin said. 
Dornin expects the audit parameters set by the committee will not dig as deeply as the bill would have required, but lawmakers say auditors will do a thorough job interviewing DOC staff, assessing how the program is run and concluding with a detailed report and recommendations.
The claims
Dornin, who was once a corrections counselor for DOC, expects an audit of any kind will reveal deep-rooted problems with the program, from poor funding and staffing to mismanagement. He says those problems result in two things: parolees getting stuck in prison longer and, in the worst cases, inmates never completing treatment by the time their full sentence is served.
An audit done in 2012 concluded that some inmates were likely being released from prison without treatment after serving their maximum sentences, which Dornin says is a public safety concern.
“Another audit, if it’s done properly, would document that the Department of Corrections has done a [poor] job on a vital service for a long time, probably because their budget has been gutted by lawmakers,” Dornin said.
He says underfunding it actually costs more money in the long run because lack of access to the program keeps individuals incarcerated longer than they should be, as the program is a requirement for sex offenders to be eligible for parole.
“The backlog was costing the state at least $3.5 million that they don’t have. The prison budget is badly underfunded to begin with, and to waste that much money causes a hardship all the way around,” Dornin said. 
He says it costs the state about $500 annually for parole officers to take care of folks on the outside, while inmates cost more than $35,000 each year they remain behind bars. Dornin says the program doesn’t have enough staff members and licensed counselors teaching the program and he criticises the decision to shorten the program period from 18 months to six months.
“They gutted it,” Dornin said.
On the inside
Right now, the program is being overseen by Heidi Guinen, the deputy director of forensic services at the DOC. She says six months is enough time to complete the program and those who take longer to complete it do so because they are making slow progress.
Guinen said one of the reasons the program time was shortened is that therapeutic group sessions that were previously done with segregated sex offenders, like socialization, coping skills, cognitive behavior therapy, victim empathy and anger management, are now integrated so sex offenders can participate in them before getting into the treatment program.
Guinen said the wait list is based on minimum sentences, and those getting into the program for the first time aren’t scheduled to reach their minimum sentences until at least 2018. The only exceptions she can account for are those who were removed from the program as punishment for misconduct. Guinen said there are currently 17 inmates in that category though that number changes almost daily.
In those situations, family members who might be angry that their loved ones aren’t getting a parole hearing may not know why they were removed from the program because the inmate won’t sign off on the release of that information. This might suggest that some of those inmates who are vocal about not getting access to the program are being disingenuous to their families about why they aren’t able to complete it, she said.
But even inmates with behavioral issues are given every opportunity to come back, Guinen said. Several years ago, there was a three-strike system that prevented an inmate’s return to the program, but Guinen says they changed that about five or six years ago so that nobody was blacklisted — the thinking being that the uncooperative or re-offending inmates require more treatment rather than less.
In the cases of violent predators who fail to complete treatment, the department evaluates the inmate’s risk to the public and can commit qualifying individuals to the secure psychiatric unit even after the inmate’s sentence is served.
Open to suggestions
Guinen welcomes an audit.
“We wish that there was this see-through glass that people could just kind of look in and see what we’re doing. That’s why we’re not fighting this audit. Internally, we’re always looking to see how we can do better. So, if someone’s going to come in and tell us ‘Hey, this is our opinion on what you can do better,’ we’re open to that,” Guinen said.
She said the program currently operates with four licensed counselors but suffered some recent staff losses, including her director, who retired early four months ago due to health reasons. While she says the program may not be perfect, she thinks it’s run sufficiently well.
“If you wanted to offer me 10 staff, I would always take more staff, but I think we’re doing a pretty good job with what we have,” Guinen said.
Right now, they serve about 92 inmates at a time, and the program lasts between six months and a year, depending on the progress an inmate makes. And if she had 10 counselors, she could double that capacity. But when asked if there’s a backlog preventing parole eligibility, she says no.
“I don’t personally see that as an issue,” Guinen said. “We keep an eye on it. We’re always concerned about making sure that people are getting in and plenty of time to get out.”
Reagan said the audit report may recommend additional funds for the DOC, but whether the legislature would approve more funding or not is an open question. 

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