By Paul S. Brennan, M.P.A. Edited by Leonard Sipes.
In 1999 Michael was transferred to the Sex Offender Unit (SOU), a newly implemented offender supervision team. Michael, a mild mannered 55 year old man, was no stranger to the criminal justice system. In 1987 he had been incarcerated for eighteen months on two charges of Gross Sexual Imposition on a minor in his hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. By 1991 Michael again found himself in prison for sexually abusing two other six-year-old girls in his Washington, D.C. home. Although three years of supervised probation was to follow his release, Michael made the decision to not report to the probation department.
When he was arrested on the bench warrant in February of 1999 and brought to court to answer for his non-compliance, it seemed reasonable at the time to give Michael the benefit of the doubt to his claim that he did not know he was on probation. This time he would be supervised by the newly formed Sex Offender Unit at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency.
In the wake of federal legislation[i] passed in the mid 1990’s to address the growing public concern about sex offenders in the community, community corrections officials in Washington, D.C. followed a growing trend around the country to develop a specialized supervision team of community supervision officers to manage its sex offenders.
His probation officer decided to stop by his home, unannounced, one random weekday evening in 1999. Michael was not home at the time of the visit; however there was an answer at the door. The probation officer was stunned to find alone in Michael’s one bedroom apartment, a small, frightened, eight-year-old girl. The probation officer knew instantly that the child was in imminent danger.
Michael’s deviant behavior ended the day his probation officer found the child in his home and, ultimately, when the Judge sentenced him to eighteen to fifty-four years in prison for molesting the eight-year-old and two other children; this was in addition to the ten years he received when his probation was subsequently revoked.
It did not take long for SOU to conclude that sex offenders presented unique challenges that demanded more from those of us responsible for managing them in the criminal justice system and in the community. Over the past decade the Sex Offender Unit has been directly involved in many cases that highlight the need for a specialized supervision program.
The program has become one of the most sophisticated and comprehensive in the country.
The Sex Offender Unit is a special program of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency for the District of Columbia (CSOSA). CSOSA is an independent executive branch agency of the federal government responsible for the supervision of nearly 16,000 offenders on probation, parole and supervised release, sentenced in D.C. Superior Court or transferred to D.C. from other jurisdictions.
Approximately 700 of CSOSA’s offender population are considered to be sex offenders.
Defining Sex Offenders
The Sex Offender Unit generally defines a sex offender as anyone who has been convicted of a crime that is sexual in nature. This means that SOU seeks to supervise the behavior as opposed to the conviction.
Under this definition it occurs with some frequency that offenders being supervised by SOU may be serving a sentence for a non-sex related offense, such as Simple Assault or Burglary, but elements of the crime suggest that it was sexually motivated.
An example of such a case would be an offender who breaks into a home and is found to be standing over a victim in bed masturbating. This definition is also designed to identify for assignment to Sex Offender Unit the offenders who may have incurred a sexually motivated conviction in the past but may not currently be on supervision for a sex offense. For example, a case in which an offender is on probation for Driving Under the Influence, but was convicted of Rape ten years earlier.
SOU’s rationale for including offenders who are on supervision for an offense other than one that is by statute a sex offense is to ensure that:
- offenders with potential issues of sexual deviancy are being monitored appropriately;
- offenders with potential issues of sexual deviancy receive appropriate evaluation and therapy if needed.
Approximately 40% of SOU’s current offender population is on supervision for an offense that is not one of sexual abuse by statute.
Sex offenders on community supervision represent a small fraction of the offenders who commit sex offenses. Many crimes of sexual abuse are never reported to law enforcement. Even fewer of the crimes result in an arrest or conviction. Issues that impact this often include, but are not exclusive to:
- The victim is influenced by the offender, family or other external factors to recant;
- The victim decides not to cooperate out of fear of embarrassment or physical harm;
- The victim or other critical witnesses are not available for court proceedings;
- A lack of corroborative evidence (i.e., witness or forensic evidence);
- The victim is too emotionally fragile or mentally ill to endure a trial;
- The victim is too young or impaired to describe the crime to a jury or judge;
- The crime was reported years after it happened therefore evidence is lost or the statute of limitations has expired;
- The prosecutor determines that the evidence otherwise is not sufficient to win a conviction.
Likely to Have Committed Other Crimes
One of the unique aspects of crimes involving sexual abuse is that they tend to be very difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. Sex offenses often are committed in secret; the offender is usually someone known and trusted by the victim, victim’s family and community.
The Sex Offender Unit is aware that many of the sex offenders placed on supervision are likely to have committed other sex offenses for which they were never held accountable. SOU is also imminently concerned that convicted sex offenders have the potential to commit new sex offenses while on supervision (or beyond) that may go undetected.
We understand that there are sex offenders who are not likely to commit new sex offenses and, therefore, require minimal services and monitoring. In fact, over-supervising a low risk sex offender can potentially increase their risk to reoffend.
The bottom-line is what’s in the best interest of community safety. For example: in D.C. a misdemeanor sex offense allows for a maximum incarceration period of 180 days, whereas the maximum period of community supervision could be up to five years.
Provisions in the sentencing guidelines also allow for registered sex offenders to be placed on ‘supervised release’ for periods from 10 years to life depending on their registration classification. Community supervision can offer the community a better option for long term monitoring and intervention in many cases than incarceration alone.
To maintain a successful sex offender management program there must be a comprehensive effort to monitor the offenders and hold them accountable for their behavior. The Sex Offender Unit achieves this through a myriad of techniques designed to minimize a sex offender’s opportunity to offend.
Close supervision and accountability is predicated on the ability of SOU to take swift and meaningful action once the risky behavior becomes evident. CSOSA uses a system of graduated intermediate sanctions in order to maintain community safety while fostering successful supervision completion. The Sex Offender Unit incorporates these sanctions into the Containment Model.
The following are some of the mechanisms SOU uses to address a variety of compliance issues that arise:
- Global Positioning System (GPS) monitoring;
- Search and Seizure;
- Reentry and Sanctions Center (RSC);
- Polygraph testing;
- Offender surveillance;
- Drug treatment;
- Joint CSOSA/Police accountability tours;
- Interagency crime initiatives; and
- Computer searches/monitoring.
None of these mechanisms to address offender behavior existed a decade ago. The introduction of these countermeasures has allowed SOU to reduce revocations by at least 30%. Furthermore, they provide the means to prevent crime and hold offender’s accountable for behavior that may have otherwise gone undetected in the past. For example, the SOU has:
- helped police solve a number of crimes by correlating crime scene data to offender GPS tracking data,
- uncovered evidence of crimes and violations of release conditions through search and seizures of offenders’ property,
- used the polygraph to help reveal the existence of victims not previously known,
- found child pornography on the computers of sex offenders that has lead to criminal convictions and revocations, and
- used evidence provided by our law enforcement partners in order to establish violations of supervision conditions that have lead to revocations.
Support services and treatment
The primary treatment intervention strategy revolves around the sex offender treatment program. SOU invests nearly 1.2 million dollars a year into providing sex offender evaluation and treatment services. All sex offenders assigned to the SOU undergo a comprehensive psychosexual evaluation. This evaluation is critical in assisting us with assessing offender risk to commit another sex offense and identifying supplemental needs. Sex offender treatment is conducted by an outside vendor hired for their qualifications and expertise in this field. Sex offender treatment is marked by the following characteristics:
- Victim/community safety;
- Targets accountability and thinking errors;
- Primarily delivered in a group setting;
- Often mandated;
- Waivers of confidentiality;
- Provider is part of the management team;
- Specialized training/experience is essential.
A sex offender typically will be engaged in sex offender treatment from 18-24 months. This is followed by an indefinite period of aftercare.
CSOSA also created the Re-entry and Sanctions Center (RSC) which is designed to be a 28-day residential assessment facility. The RSC is a facility where offenders can report directly from prison for a comprehensive assessment of needs. Or, it is used as a constructive means of sanctioning offenders exhibiting acute drug abuse issues where removal form the community is needed while avoiding revocation and incarceration. Programs to address anger, domestic violence, substance abuse, employment, and housing, among others are offered as well. In short, CSOSA has demonstrated its commitment to providing opportunities for its offender population to make positive changes.
There is value in developing and maintaining strong partnerships with other stakeholders. Successful outcomes in sex offender management can not occur without all stakeholders coming together around a common goal: of public safety. Existing partnerships include the Metropolitan Police Department, the United States Attorney’s Office, D.C. Superior Court, the F.B.I. Innocent Images Unit, Metro Transit Police, Prince George’s County Sex Offender Registry, Montgomery County Sex Offender Registry, State of Virginia Sex Offender Registry, D.C. Rape Crisis Center, D.C. Housing Authority, D.C. Child and Protective Services, the D.C. Victims Advocacy Center, U.S. Probation, U.S. District Court for D.C., Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Northern Virginia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (NOVAICAC) and the U.S. Marshal’s Service.
Over the past decade CSOSA’s Sex Offender Unit has come a long way toward achieving the right balance between enhancing community safety and offender rehabilitation. SOU consistently maintains one of the highest success rate among the CSOSA offender population; less than one percent of the sex offenders we supervise have been arrested or convicted for new sex offenses. In the rare instances where new sex offenses were committed by those we supervise, we and our interagency partners have worked closely to see that there was justice for the victims.
If Michael was on supervision with SOU today we believe the likelihood that his sexually deviant behavior would have been prevented or detected much sooner. It is impossible to predict how Michael’s case may have turned out if he were subjected to the program requirements we have in place today. The Sex Offender Unit is certain that he would have found it substantially more difficult to hide his behavior between polygraphs, accountability tours with police, GPS monitoring, computer searches, intensive therapy and the investigative eye of a well-trained community supervision officer.
- CSOSA invests nearly one million dollars on sex offender treatment services per year;
- SOU supervises nearly 700 sex offenders ;
- Average SOU caseload size is 25:1;
- Approximately 25% of sex offenders actively under supervision are on GPS monitoring at a given time;
- All sex offenders submit to polygraph exams.
United States v. John Anthony:
In 2007, the offender was given a polygraph exam. The polygrapher determined that the results were inconclusive. After further questioning, the offender admitted to his Community Supervision Officer (CSO) that he had viewed pornography. His CSO determined that a search of the computer was needed. Consent was obtained to allow officers to conduct a “scan” of the computer in question using special software.
The scan revealed one image of a nude male, some MySpace activity, and password protected files. Officers asked the owner of the computer if she would allow them to take the computer back to the office in order to conduct a more extensive examination of the computer since the software they were using is not powerful enough to view protected files. She refused.
SOU consulted with the US Attorney’s Office who agreed to assist by securing a search warrant in order to seize the computer and conduct a forensic examination with more powerful software.
Child pornography was found on the computer in question.
Anthony entered his guilty plea in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia before The Honorable Ellen S. Huvelle. Anthony was subject to enhanced penalties because some of the images of child pornography he possessed involved prepubescent minors or minors who had not attained the age of 12 years, and some of the images and videos he possessed portrayed sadistic or masochistic conduct or other depictions of violence. Most of the evidence was pornographic videos depicting graphic sexual acts by young boys. The evidence was sent to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children which was able to verify that at least 4 of the images were known (previously identified) children. The offender was sentenced in US District Court to 121 months in prison to run concurrent to his other sentence. His probation was subsequently revoked.