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UTAH SEX-OFFENDER PROGRAM EXPANDS

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The state Board of Pardons requires sex offenders to complete a treatment program as a condition of release.

The treatment is extensive, with a success rate surpassing national averages. It also is controversial, even crude, says the therapist who runs treatment programs at two of Utah's halfway houses."This is a field that is in its infancy," says Duane Johnson, executive director of the Center for Family Development, which contracts with the state to provide sex-offender treatment. "I would have no doubt that in 20 years, people will look back upon what we are doing as somewhat barbaric. But in terms of what works, this is the state-of-the-art."

Johnson's organization has run the sex offender treatment program at the Fremont Community Corrections center for 11 years, and on May 1 took over at the Bonneville Community Corrections center. Some 120 male sex offenders live in the two halfway houses.

National studies show those guilty of sex crimes who receive treatment have recidivism rates ranging from 10 percent to 70 percent. But Johnson said just 4 percent of those who go through his treatment program commit new sex crimes.

The success rate may be due to the intensity and duration of the treatment. Nationally, most treatment programs last nine to 12 months, while in Utah sex offenders receive treatment for two to 21/2 years in halfway houses and after they are released into the community.

When sex offenders arrive at Bonneville, they are locked down for 30 days and undergo a battery of tests, including one using a device called a plethysmograph, which is a penis ring with sensors that measure sexual arousal.

The plethysmograph and masturbation therapy have provoked the most controversy over sex offender treatment in Utah. A few years ago, prison-reform advocate and attorney Ross Anderson met with sex offenders who complained they had to act out their fantasies with dolls and masturbate to tapes of men talking about fantasies of sex with children. Thirty-three sex offenders signed a letter to Mormon Church officials complaining masturbation violated church teachings.

Johnson said Center for Family Development therapists will not use masturbation therapy except in isolated cases. Instead, they rely on verbal aversion therapy to try to change offenders' behavior.

"Some of the people simply do not have arousal for what we would consider more normal objects of desire," said Johnson.

In treatment, offenders attend two classes per week that include aversion therapy along with "responsibility model" therapy that covers human sexuality, substance abuse counseling, parenting and empathy.

Two other weekly sessions concentrate on relapse prevention.

"A lot of guys come in with the attitude they know (they did) wrong, that it was the last time they will do it for the rest of their lives," Johnson said. "People who believe this isn't a problem for them anymore are kind of sleepwalking, and it is more likely they will reoffend."

The men also have individual therapy each week.

Some offenders question the worth of having to repeatedly reenact or discuss crimes they say they know were wrong and would prefer not to think about.

"If knowing it was wrong was all it took," Johnson said, "it wouldn't have occurred in the first place."

Johnson said that at least half the offenders were respected in their communities and their arrests astonished their neighbors. That is because most people have difficulty understanding anyone who would use good deeds as a means to manipulate a victim into a position of trust.

"We all have this idea that if there is a sex offender around, we'll be able to identify him. He'll look like a dirty old man. But these people, unless you spend a lot of time around them, seem quite normal," he said.

"It's almost like there is not a person inside. It's a collection of roles (they take) to get what they want. For these people, it's a strategic approach."

Ray Wahl, who oversees the administration of halfway houses for the Department of Corrections, said people who believe the sex treatment programs are too harsh should look at the results.

"Yeah, it's awful to make people be constantly reminded of (their sex crimes), maybe for years and years. It's ugly," he said. "But what does the community want? I think people ought to wake up and understand that part of the modus operandi of a sex offender is to manipulate people. That's how they got their victims in the first place.

"And if the people don't want to think about that," he said, "then the Department of Corrections will have to think about it for them."