Criminal and juvenile court judges alike report experiencing more difficulty with decisionmaking in sex offense cases relative to other criminal and delinquency cases (Bumby & Maddox, 1999; Bumby, Talbot, West, & Darling, 2006). Included among the multiple factors that increase their difficulties presiding over these cases are the following (Bumby & Maddox, 1999; Bumby et al., 2006):
- Reduced judicial discretion;
- Greater public scrutiny;
- Lack of corroborating information;
- Often familiar nature of the victim–offender relationship;
- Complex dynamics;
- Inadequate assessment information to inform disposition decisions;
- Questions about sex offender recidivism; and
- Lack of specialized training about sex offenders.
Moreover, because the individuals who commit sex offenses are a very heterogeneous population, judges may be uncertain about what the most appropriate and effective disposition will be for each case. “One size fits all” or “standardized” sentencing or disposition packages will not be effective. Some sexually abusive individuals will require more intensive interventions (e.g., close supervision, specialized monitoring strategies, incarceration, or residential placement), whereas others may be more effectively managed in the community with less intensive interventions.
When judges make individually–tailored disposition decisions based on identified risk and needs, successful outcomes are more likely to be achieved (see, e.g., Cumming & McGrath, 2005; Holmgren, 1999). Therefore, to the extent possible, members of the judiciary must take full advantage of opportunities to obtain specialized information—both in a broader sense and at the individual case level—that will assist them as they preside over these cases on a day–to–day basis (English et al., 1996; Holmgren 1999).
Over the past decade, multiple advances in research and practice have been made with respect to understanding and managing adult and juvenile sex offenders, many of which have implications for judicial decisionmaking. Of particular significance are the development of sex offender–specific risk assessment tools (see Hanson, 2000; Prescott, 2006), additional research on the unique factors related to recidivism (see Hanson & Morton–Bourgon, 2005; Worling & Langstrom, 2006), and increasing evidence of “what works” with sex offenders (see, e.g., Aos, Phipps, Barnoski, & Lieb, 2006; Hanson, et al., 2002; Lösel & Schmucker, 2005; MacKenzie, 2006; Reitzel & Carbonell, 2006).
Unfortunately, although numerous training opportunities are available for other key professionals responsible for sex offender management (e.g., supervision officers, treatment providers), judicial education programs specifically tailored to meet the needs of judges tend to be very limited (CEPP, 2007; Schafran et al., 2001b). This often leaves them with the challenge of making disposition decisions without the benefit of specialized information pertinent to sex offense cases. Therefore, specialized education opportunities must be made available to members of the judiciary (Bumby & Maddox, 1999; Bumby et al., 2006; English et al., 1996; Holmgren, 1999). Included among the types of information that can be most beneficial to judicial education efforts are the following:
- Current data about sexual victimization trends, including the nature of the relationship between many victims and offenders, the underreporting of sexual victimization, and the impact of sex crimes on victims;
- The heterogeneity of the sex offender population, and the associated implications for management strategies;
- Differences between adults and juveniles who have committed sex offenses;
- Recidivism data, including variations in recidivism rates;
- Risk factors that are associated with recidivism among adult and juvenile sex offenders;
- The importance of assessment–driven decisionmaking, including the types of assessments that can be most useful for judges;
- The strengths and limitations of risk assessment methods, including specific tools designed for adult and juvenile sex offenders;
- Research–supported and promising management strategies for these populations; and
- The multiple roles that judges can play in promoting effective sex offender management.
Beyond receiving specialized training, members of the judiciary will be better equipped to make informed disposition decisions when they have ready access to comprehensive and quality assessment information (see, e.g., English et al., 1996; Holmgren, 1999). Specifically, a comprehensive pre–sentence/pre–disposition report and specialized psychosexual evaluation can offer critical insights into an individual’s presumed level of risk, the types of interventions most likely to reduce reoffense potential for that individual, the level of structure or type of placement necessary for ensuring community safety, specific factors that may positively or negatively impact responses to treatment and supervision, and the individual’s overall amenability to intervention. (For additional information about the use of assessments to inform decisionmaking throughout the system, see the Assessment section of this protocol.) Given the valuable information offered by these assessments, jurisdictions may wish to consider implementing policies that require such assessments to be available consistently to judges.
A comprehensive approach to adult and juvenile sex offender management cannot be fully implemented without judicial endorsement of research–based and other specialized management efforts. Despite the trends toward increasingly punitive approaches to managing sex offenders, often in the absence of research support, judges nonetheless have multiple opportunities to support evidence–based and promising interventions through their role and leverage in the system. For example, judges can rely on the growing body of empirical evidence and other professional literature that identifies ‘what works’ and what is promising when crafting disposition orders. This includes not only the contemporary research from the broader criminal and juvenile justice field and current research specific to adult and juvenile sex offenders, but also the research and practice literature pertaining to victims’ needs and interests.
Judicial support for effective management efforts can be demonstrated tangibly in the following ways (see, e.g., CEPP, 2007; English et al., 1996; Holmgren, 1999; Schafran, 2001b):
- Promoting victim–centeredness throughout the court process;
- Handing down well–informed and assessment–driven dispositions that include evidence–based and promising management strategies;
- Reinforcing offender progress and compliance, as well as imposing appropriate sanctions for non–compliance;
- Using the leverage of the court to enlist the support or involvement of parents/caregivers in juvenile sex offense cases;
- Demanding accountability from the stakeholders responsible for offender management;
- Becoming familiar with local resources and assisting with capacity–building efforts when critical gaps are identified;
- Supporting multidisciplinary training events, as both an educator and a participant;
- Representing the courts as an active team member on collaborative initiatives; and
- Educating policymakers as a means of promoting evidence–based legislation.
As highlighted throughout this section, cases involving sex offenses pose unique challenges to the criminal and juvenile court system, whether for the law enforcement or other professionals responsible for investigations, the officers of the court charged with bringing these cases to successful resolution, or the judges responsible for disposition decisions. Through informed policies and practices, meaningful partnerships and information–sharing with key agencies, and critical assessment data to drive decisionmaking, stakeholders in this initial phase of the sex offender management process can establish a solid foundation for ongoing and effective management efforts.
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