Sex offender treatment, supervision high priority for MDOC
Sex offenders are among the most feared and despised by the public. Their crimes can destroy people’s lives and break families apart.
Standing from left are Sex Offender Agents Kathleen Shampo of the Troy probation office and Lori Darbyshire of the Pontiac probation office. Seated from left are Dan O’Neil and Leo Niffeler, sex offender therapists at Eastwood Clinic.
In the MDOC, close attention is paid to protecting the public from these offenders through therapy while they are in prison, through cautious and very considered parole decisions and through careful supervision by specialists while they are in the community on parole or probation.
The number of sex offenders in prison has grown more than 88 percent since 1989 and continues to grow each year. In 1989, there were 4,722 sex offenders; by 2005, the department anticipates that there could be as many as 17,000. They constitute about one-third of the state’s prison population and their increasing numbers have contributed to the prison population growth.
Sex offenders do not easily gain parole. About 14 percent are paroled at their earliest possible release date compared with 47 percent of all offenders and 72 percent of all drug offenders.
“If we’re not confident that the person has a handle on their behavior, which is very difficult to change, we’re not going to parole them. There is no room for trial and error here,” says John Rubitschun, chairperson of the Michigan Parole Board. “In particular, those offenders with prior sex offenses who prey on children are not likely to get a parole; they have to demonstrate they fully understand their deviation, what triggers it and how they plan to avoid circumstances that trigger it,” he says.
Relapse prevention training is the focus of the sex offender treatment offered to most sex offenders inside Michigan prisons. Those convicted of sex offenses and those whose crimes had a sexual component are automatically referred for an assessment for placement in the program.
The one-year treatment program, usually available to offenders who are within a year or two of their earliest outdates, was developed by examining sex offender treatment programs throughout the country, says Tony Straseske, the MDOC’s mental health manager who oversees all psychological services.
“Offenders learn to recognize offense cycles, risk factors, triggers and decision making processes and to use this knowledge to change their behavior and prevent further sexual offending,” says Straseske.
By identifying the emotional, cognitive and behavioral components of the crime, the program helps them come up with strategies to avoid crime in the future by preparing a prevention plan tailored to their particular situation.
“There is no such thing as a cure,” says Straseske. “These offenders must monitor their behavior for the rest of their lives, not unlike drug addicts and alcoholics. There is always the potential for relapse.”
There are currently 124 sex offender therapy groups involving about 1,130 prisoners in nearly all state prisons. About 86 psychologists lead the groups.
Straseske believes the therapy makes a difference: “Effective treatment has occurred when the offender has the tools necessary to control his deviance, can identify at risk situations and has developed plans to avoid them.”
Psychologists meet with members of the Michigan Parole Board to discuss sex offender treatment and their chances of success on parole. “They are very knowledgeable about sex offenders,” Straseske says.
“My caseload knows I’m a specialist and they can’t manipulate me the way they might be able to manipulate a regular agent who isn’t aware of their behavior,” says Jim Olson, a parole and probation agent in Lapeer County who specializes in managing sex offenders.
Olson, who has studied the dynamics of sex offenders on his own, also meets routinely with the clinician at the facility the MDOC contracts with to provide sex offender therapy to those he supervises. Most sex offenders are required to complete therapy and are supervised at the maximum supervision level, which requires weekly contacts with their agents.
“Sex offenders are generally more often employed, smarter and better liars than other types of offenders,” says Olson.
Lori Darbyshire, a probation agent from Pontiac who specializes in sex offender supervision and who has received special training, says such offenders are “generally very organized, often model probationers, but you really don’t know what’s going on in their heads inside the traditional probation process.”
“Outwardly, sex offenders seem very compliant and are almost obsessive about keeping appointments and providing documentation, but they require close supervision because it’s hard to tell on the surface what they’re doing,” says Kathleen Shampo, an Oakland County probation agent in Troy.
Shampo, who received specialized training in investigating and interrogating offenders, says the Night Hawk program in Oakland County is helpful in discovering the secret lives of sex offenders. She, herself, has caught sex offenders with prohibited sex paraphernalia in their homes on such unscheduled home visits.
“It takes a collaborative effort between the agent, the police and the therapist, who form a tight circle around the offenders,” she said.
“With sex offenders the best you can do is to teach them to control their impulses which will probably be with them the rest of their lives. Through cognitive restructuring, you can teach them to recognize faulty thinking patterns such as ‘I’ll never get caught,’” she said.
Olson also uses unannounced home visits and close contacts with the families of sex offenders to fill in the blanks.
“Sex offenders are generally so compliant that they can be overlooked on a regular caseload of all types of offenders. The agent is usually chasing around after a more typical offender whose behavior is likely to be more overtly antisocial,” he said.
Lapeer County is one of three counties involved in requiring polygraph examinations for parolees. Parolees are polygraphed within 90 days of release from prison, mid-way through the parole period and three to six months before their discharge from parole.
Olson says the results “send me in the right direction.” If they seem to show the offender is lying about behavior or thinking patterns, the agent, along with the therapist, investigates the issues further which might require a home visit or contact with an employer or family members.
Special conditions also help agents govern the behavior of such offenders. For both types of offenders—parolees and probationers—conditions generally include therapy, a prohibition of possession of sexually stimulating materials and a waiver of confidentiality so the agent can talk to the therapist.
They also might include restrictions on living with children, contacting children or caring for children if the crime involved children. There are special conditions that prohibit possession of a computer or any device that allows access to the Internet and that demand the offender to stay away from schools, parks and other places where children frequent.
“The department makes every effort possible to ensure the success of paroled sex offenders and those who have been granted probation,” says State Corrections Director William S. Overton.
Michigan Department of Corrections, Nov. 14, 2002