Enhance Reentry Outcomes Through Informed Release Decisionmaking

Research demonstrates that discretionary release practices—whereby current assessments of risk and needs, participation in facility–based programs and services, and comprehensive release plans that inform release considerations—are associated with better outcomes post–release (Petersilia, 2003; Seiter & Kadela, 2003). Discretionary release allows for the selective early release of individuals before the expiration of their sentences and includes a period of post–release supervision which, if balanced with adequate supports and rehabilitative efforts in the community, promotes successful reentry (see, e.g., Petersilia, 2003). When discretionary release is not an option, sex offenders who exit residential/institutional facilities are under no obligation to participate in evidence–based programming (despite its demonstrable effect on recidivism reduction), and they are not supervised by the criminal justice system in the community.

For unmotivated sex offenders who would otherwise not participate in sex offender programming within facilities, discretionary release provides an incentive to engage in treatment. For sex offenders who are already committed to treatment, it provides an additional reinforcement. Furthermore, when sex offenders engage in offense–specific programming within facilities, observed motivational levels may increase, which in turn can have a positive impact on their willingness to participate in community–based sex offender treatment post–release (Barrett, Wilson, & Long, 2003; Spencer, 1999). Beyond providing a compelling incentive and boosting motivation to participate in treatment, another way that release decisionmakers can use their influence to enhance reentry outcomes is through the use of specialized post–release supervision conditions, which would otherwise not be required if a sex offender had simply been released at the expiration of their sentence. Such conditions can be particularly effective when they are applied selectively based on the assessed level of risk and the identified needs of each sex offender.

However, release decisionmakers report having difficulty weighing release considerations in these cases and indicate that they are less likely to release sex offenders conditionally (Bumby, 2005). Correctional and juvenile justice policymakers may be able to offset some of the concerns of releasing authorities by ensuring that current results from empirically–validated sex offender–specific risk assessments, documentation of sex offenders’ participation in treatment (and refusals to do so), ongoing programming needs, and proposed release plans are forwarded to release decisionmakers in a timely and consistent manner. In some jurisdictions, these and other sources of data are included in parole guidelines to provide the opportunity for release decisions to be assessment–driven. Finally, to assist those who are responsible for release decisionmaking with understanding and considering these types of cases, specialized training about sex offenders and the efficacy of management strategies should be provided. Taken together, these strategies may increase their confidence in utilizing the leverage of discretionary release in sex offense cases.

Juvenile Considerations

A recent survey of sex offender programs nationwide revealed that roughly one half of all placed juvenile sex offenders receiving treatment are placed in residential/institutional facilities (McGrath, Cumming, & Burchard, 2003). As noted earlier, juvenile sex offenders who enter such placements remain in those placements considerably longer than other types of youthful offenders (Snyder & Sickmund, 2006). Sometimes, excessive lengths of stay in facilities are the result of the efforts of well–intentioned practitioners who want to ensure that all of the needs of juvenile sex offenders are addressed prior to release. However, treatment for these youth should not begin and end in placement. Some of their needs and issues (e.g., acute mental health problems, posing a threat of harm to oneself or others) must be addressed before release, but others can be addressed initially within facilities and continued in the community (e.g., sex offending behavior, family–related problems).

There is currently no evidence that demonstrates that long–term and oftentimes costly residential/institutional placements for juvenile sex offenders result in better outcomes and reduced recidivism post–release (see, e.g., Chaffin, Letourneau, & Silovsky, 2002; Hunter, 2006; Hunter, Gilbertson, Vedros, & Morton, 2004). Moreover, contemporary research indicates that aggregating delinquent peers, even for the well–intended purpose of providing interventions, can actually increase the likelihood of recidivism (Dodge et al., 2006). Research also reveals that family– and community–based interventions result in significant reductions in recidivism among juvenile sex offenders (see, e.g., Borduin & Schaeffer, 2002; Saldana, Swenson, & Letourneau, 2006).

Without question, some juvenile sex offenders require placement in a residential or juvenile correctional facility; but many juveniles can be safely managed in community settings. Therefore, in light of the current evidence, practitioners should exercise caution when placing youth in juvenile justice facilities, particularly if placement decisions are purely subjective and driven primarily by the presence of sexually abusive behavior. In the absence of an objective, assessment–driven release decision–making strategy, the potential is that a juvenile will remain in the facility longer than is necessary, which may be detrimental to the youth and increase the likelihood of recidivism.

To ensure that release decisions are well–informed and that lengths of stay do not become excessive, it is important that juvenile/family courts and youth–serving agencies establish policies and procedures that take into account objective criteria and research–supported risk assessment instruments. With juvenile sex offenders, the use of research–supported, juvenile–specific risk assessment tools can provide helpful information that is specific to that population. If these tools are incorporated into decisionmaking practices at the point of initial placement, it may result in better utilization of these facilities at the front end. The remaining youth can then receive the family–and community–based interventions that are most likely to reduce recidivism.

Another strategy to address the length of stay is to assign juveniles to case managers shortly following disposition. These case managers then remain responsible for cases throughout the juvenile justice system. As such, these professionals develop and oversee individualized case management plans that guide the delivery of programming and services in both residential/institutional facilities and in the community. In many ways, these case managers act as service brokers and advocates, ensuring that juveniles are receiving the most effective services in the most appropriate settings. When juveniles enter residential facilities, the case manager maintains ongoing communication with the facility staff members and treatment providers, receives monthly progress summaries that address the residential/facility placement goals, and visits the youth in the facility to discuss progress and ongoing needs, all with the ultimate goal of successful transition to the community. Ideally, this approach provides a “checks and balances” system, whereby the decision to transition a youth out of (or to keep him in) a facility is well–informed, based on established goals of which all parties are aware (with ongoing documented progress measured against those goals) and collaboration between the case manager and facility staff. Not surprisingly, disagreements sometimes arise about the timing of a youthful sex offender’s release from the facility and transition to a less restrictive environment. In these instances, an objective case review can be conducted by a neutral party and weigh the available information in order to come to an informed resolution.

Others within the juvenile justice system have established length of stay or other guidelines that provide release decisionmakers with specific direction about how and when to transition juvenile sex offenders to less restrictive environments. These formal guidelines take into account the seriousness of the crime, current recidivism risk and needs, the time the youth has served, and other assessment data. Within these guidelines, the use of research–supported, juvenile sex–offense specific tools can be a valuable addition, as they provide yet another source of data to inform transition and release decisions.

Victim–Centeredness during Release Decisionmaking

As is the case with all facets of sex offender management, a number of victims’ rights, needs, and interests come into play in the reentry context. These include, but are not limited to, the following (Fine, 2000; Hook & Seymour, 2003; Schlank & Bidelman, 2001; Seymour, 1997, 2001):

Although most states have established policies and procedures for soliciting victim impact statements and other information from victims and victim advocates at parole hearings, and for notifying victims of offenders’ releases, not all jurisdictions are steadfast in their attempts to undertake these important activities consistently. For this and other reasons, the actual involvement of victims in parole proceedings remains low (Fine, 2000; Petersilia, 2003; Seymour, 1997) and the perspectives of victims and victim advocates in the transition planning process is inconsistent.

The following are key steps that some jurisdictions have taken to become more victim–centered in the context of release decisionmaking in sex offense cases (Fine, 2000; OVC, 2004; Petersilia, 2003; Schlank & Bidelman, 2001; Seymour, 1997, 2001):

It is important for release decisionmakers and other criminal and juvenile justice system actors to be sensitive to the fact that some victims of sex crimes do not want to be involved during this phase, and are not interested in receiving automatic notifications about changes in the status of these cases. Indeed, as noted previously, victims must be allowed to determine the extent to which they are involved throughout the various proceedings. Victims should be allowed to “opt out” at any point in the process.

In the context of juvenile sex offender reentry, victim sensitivity and safety are especially critical when planning the return of a youth who has committed sex crimes to a school in the community. For example, if the victim and the offender attend the same school, it is necessary to consider other education options for the offender (e.g., day treatment programs, alternative schools, or GED classes) or to develop a victim safety plan well in advance of release, with input from the victim, a victim advocate or service provider, and others involved in the case.

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