August 20, 2013
Contact: Gail Colletta
Lake Monroe, FL— August 20, 2013.
Fixing the Broken Civil Commitment System in Florida
“Sex Predators Unleashed” was the headline on the cover of Sunday’s Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. The attention-grabbing story highlighted several instances where Florida’s civil commitment program had failed victims by not keeping those considered for civil commitment locked up.
The crimes featured in the article were tragic. They should have never happened. The Sun Sentinel found that “1,384 sex offenders had been rearrested on new sex charges. In comparison, 759 sex offenders have been committed to the state’s sex predator treatment center. That means for every one committed, nearly two others were released and then arrested on a sex charge.” What the article does not say is that all of the sex offenders released from Florida prisons – 31,0000 of them — were screened for civil commitment over 14 years. Of approximately 31,000 sex offenders who were assessed and released, there were 1,400 recidivists. That statistic represents a 5% recidivism rate over 14 years. That means that for every one re-arrested, about 20 did not go on to commit new sex crimes. In 95% of the cases, the screening team, evaluators, courts and program officials made the right call.
Of the sexual recidivists, there were 14 murders, accounting for about of 1% of the recidivistic cases and less than 5 in 10,000 of all sex offenders released from prison. While these egregious cases are heinous and unacceptable, they are rare events. In most cases the Sexually Violent Predator program did, in fact, do a good job of identifying the worst of the worst. The vast majority of sex offenders did not go on to commit any new sex crime and most are strictly supervised in the community.
Jill Levenson, Associate Professor at Lynn University, was one of the experts interviewed for the article. The Florida Action Committee (FAC) spoke with Dr. Levenson about the article and she stated, “It is naïve to think that we can prevent all repeat crimes. The best we can do is use the best evidence we have to identify those at highest risk to reoffend using an empirically derived and consistent system. These tragic cases should be thoroughly examined so that the SVP program, probation officers, treatment providers, and court officials can identify areas where specific policies or procedures can be improved. At the same time, there should be a close look at the 95% of offenders who did not reoffend, so we can identify and enhance the sex offender management and treatment strategies that are working well.”
Dr. Eric Imhof PsyD, stated, “risk assessments of future human behavior are on the cutting edge of science with a voluminous literature base and new information about how to improve risk assessments published by researchers every day. It should be noted that the Department of Children and Families (DCF) Sexually Violent Predator Program has stringent standards for training and experience before contracting with an evaluator and requires their evaluators to attend intensive annual or often bi-annual trainings to keep them up to date on the latest developments in the field. These standards ensure quality control at the second phase of evaluation process for sexually violent predators. Unfortunately, there is no such oversight for evaluators once the case is transitioned from DCF to the courts and it is noted that, in three of the high profile rape and murder cases described in the article, these offenders were released, based in part, on testimony proffered by evaluators who are not, and have never been, DCF evaluators and one that is no longer a DCF evaluator. This leads one to question the quality control that is in place during the commitment or annual review phase of the process. Ironically, Florida does have legislation that requires mental health professionals assessing or treating sex offenders to undergo minimum training and attend a minimum number of continuing education requirements to become ‘Qualified Practitioners’ (F. S. 948.001(9) & Florida Rule 64B4-7.0081); however, this standard is under-enforced and the establishment of detailed standards for ‘Qualified Practitioner’ were circumvented by psychologist and psychiatrists who perform the vast majority of sexually violent predator evaluations and testimony. Requiring certification by the State of Florida or, at least, establishment of detailed criteria to define ‘Qualified Practitioner’ for psychologists and psychiatrists would go a long way to ensuring minimum standards and quality control for those mental health professionals that work with this potentially dangerous population.”
FAC agrees with Dr. Eric Imhof. While the legislature is well meaning here, there are a few areas in which this process can improve. As this is a highly specialized area there should be required training and continuing education in this field. It should be a public safety issue, not a political one. FAC supports having a step-down practice for anyone released to have support in the community and checks and balances, not as additional punishment, but for public safety to ensure a released former offender from the SVPP program has a connection in the community to have access to resources to assist in transitioning safely and successfully back to society.
FAC also spoke with Dr. Suzonne Kline, PsyD who, for years, headed up the SVP program for the State of Florida. Dr Kline disagreed with many of the findings in the Sun-Sentinel investigation. “No changes were made to the Sexually Violent Predator Program for budget purposes. During my tenure, the program was continuously funded and supported by the agency. Criteria were not narrowed, but intentionally tightened to reflect the most recent scientific literature in the field and for screening purposes only, making the program more efficient and in line with the Florida Statute to identify the most dangerous of sexual predators. In addition, a third independent expert was brought in and required to review all cases with 2 or more sex convictions. This represented an additional safe-guard for the program’s screening process. If any one expert requested a face-to-face evaluation, the case moved forward.”
Dr. Kline also agreed with Dr. Levenson and stated, “no program can be 100% effective. We are dealing with human behavior. Despite enormous strides in actuarial and dynamic risk assessment, the fact remains that we cannot predict the future. What we can offer, however, are estimates of how likely one individual’s risk of recidivism relates to another.”
“The problem is not with the Sexually Violent Predator Program itself per se, but what the state is not doing with those screened out of the program (which is the vast majority of cases) and those released from the program by the Court as no longer meeting criteria. At the present time, there is NO regulatory agency or authority in Florida to monitor and track the 88-90% who are screened out of the system because they do not meet statutory criteria. This is where we need to focus our efforts, budget and energy”
When putting public safety at the forefront, Dr. Kline’s position on the matter is in line with those of most experts in the field of sex offender management as well as victim’s advocacy groups; “the vast majority if sex crimes are NOT committed by convicted sex offenders. They are committed by first-time offenders. Educating the public, policy-makers and media of this empirically validated fact is of the utmost importance in order to change public policy and make our communities safer.”
Florida Action Committee (FAC), founded in 2006, is a state-wide consortium of concerned citizens and professionals whose purpose is to promote the prevention of sexual abuse while preserving the safety and dignity of all citizens through carefully structured laws targeting the truly violent, forced, and/or dangerous predatory acts of sex. FAC believes that many aspects of the current approach to sex offenders seriously undermine justice and actually increase the threat of sexual assault against others, particularly children. FAC opposes a publicized registry of sex offenders and seeks to bring an end to the humiliation of people who have already paid for their crimes. FAC asserts that only by supporting justice for all people—offenders and victims alike can a truly safe society be built and secured for all Americans.