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Assessing Risk Among Sex Offenders in Virginia

January 2001:

In 1999, the Virginia General Assembly requested the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission to develop a sex offender risk assessment instrument, based on the risk of re-offense, for integration into the state’s sentencing guidelines system. In accordance with Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 333 of the 1999 General Assembly, the Commission embarked on an empirical study of recidivism among sex offenders convicted in the Commonwealth. The Commission’s goal was to develop a reliable and valid predictive instrument, specific to the population of sex offenders in Virginia, that could be a valuable tool for the judiciary when sentencing sex offenders. If put in place, Virginia would be the first state in the nation to integrate sex offender risk assessment into sentencing guidelines.

Research Methodology
The Commission tracked 579 felony sex offenders who were released from incarceration (or sentenced to probation without an active term of incarceration) during fiscal years (FY) 1990 through 1993. Selecting offenders returning to the community from FY1990 to FY1993 allowed for a minimum five-year follow-up for all offenders in the sample, with some offenders followed for as long as ten years. On average, offenders in the Commission’s study were tracked for eight years. The offenders were selected in such a way that the overall sample reflects the characteristics of a random sample of sex offenders sentenced in Virginia’s circuit courts in calendar years (CY) 1996 and 1997. This design enables the Commission to generalize the results of the study to the population of sex offenders sentenced in circuit courts in the Commonwealth.

Automated data was supplemented through manual data collection. Through examination of narrative accounts found in pre/post-sentence investigation (PSI) reports, rich contextual detail of the sex offenses committed by offenders in the sample was gathered. Criminal history “rap sheets” from the Virginia Criminal Information Network (VCIN) system maintained by the Virginia State Police and from the FBI’s Central Criminal Records Exchange (CCRE) system provided recidivism data and supplemented prior record information.

Measuring Recidivism
There are many barriers to accurate measurement of recidivism among sex offenders, including reluctance to report sexual victimization and evidentiary problems resulting in offenders not being charged or convicted of their crimes. Victims and witnesses may refuse to come forward to testify, particularly when the victim is young. These and other obstacles hinder the prosecution of sex offense cases and often mean that charges must be dropped or reduced in a plea agreement. In order to avoid the underestimation of recidivism that is inherent with measurement based solely on reconviction, the Commission elected to define recidivism using official records of arrests. The Commission believes that measuring recidivism by a new arrest more closely approximates the true rate of re-offense behavior among sex offenders. To the extent that sex offenders go on to commit other types of violent crimes, re-arrests for new sex offenses will underestimate the predatory nature of these offenders. The Commission, therefore, chose as its operational definition of recidivism a new arrest for a sex offense or any other crime against the person.

Treatment of Sex Offenders
SJR 333 requests the Commission to consider the impact of treatment interventions on the reduction of recidivism among this particular population of offenders. The Commission, however, determined that assessing the effectiveness of post-conviction treatment services among offenders in the study sample would be extremely difficult. In 1992, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) determined that, during the time in which the offenders under study were incarcerated, “the Department of Corrections had not promulgated any standards to govern the development of treatment programs in the prisons and field units” (p. iii). JLARC found no agency specific requirements for the service providers, no minimum qualifications for counselors conducting group therapy and no guidelines outlining the basic elements of therapeutic counseling (p. iv-v). Moreover, only half (53%) of imprisoned sex offenders received any treatment services prior to reaching their first parole eligibility date (JLARC 1992, p. iv).

Of those receiving treatment services when they become eligible for parole, a large share (40%) were provided only sex offender education programming, and not sex offender therapy. Furthermore, little consistent documentation about participation in prison-based sex offender treatment programs was available in files at the headquarters of the Department of Corrections. Given these serious limitations, the Commission concluded that the impact of post-conviction treatment and its effect on rates of recidivism among sex offenders returned to the community from FY1990 through FY1993 could not be accurately assessed as part of the current study. Although the impact of specialized sex offender treatment provided after conviction was not examined, the Commission analyzed available automated data indicating whether or not the offender had received some type of mental health treatment or participated in an alcohol or drug treatment program prior to committing the offense under study. A review of literature on the effectiveness of sex offender treatment is provided in this document. ..more..

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