In Pennsylvania, a convict receives a minimum and a maximum sentence. If he makes good progress toward rehabilitation, presumably he will be paroled at or near his minimum sentence. If he does not make good progress, he will serve his maximum or nearly his maximum sentence. For a sex offender to be eligible for parole, he must complete a sex-offender treatment program. The problem is that the offenders have difficulty getting placed in these programs. Below are stories from two inmates at the State Correctional Institute at Mercer.
On November 18, 1996, Mr. Walls wrote a request to find out why he was not being placed in a sex offender treatment program. He received the following reply from R. Dunstan:
"I've already addressed this. You have a copy of the memo. I'll make no promises about when you'll be placed in treatment programming; we'll try to get you in the last year, but I make no guarantees."
The memo to which Mr. Dunstan refers was written by him, reviewed by V. Shaffer, and dated April 15, 1996. It reads in part:
"Inmates who are on the waiting list will be placed in groups, according to priority, as slots become available. It is impossible, given the constant flux of inmates, to anticipate any starting dates for individuals on the waiting list. Therefore, questions or requests on this matter will not be fruitful."
Mr. Snyder writes in a request dated October 29, 1997, that his minimum date for release is January 24, 1999. He would not like to serve his maximum sentence and requests that he be placed in the next Intro group. Mr. Dunstan's response was: "See attached memo. You are on the list." The memo was written on September 8, 1997, by Mr. Dunstan, and reads in totality:
"Due to the disproportionately large number of sex offenders which have been placed in SRCFÐMercer, resources for offering treatment are relatively limited. After being referred by their counselor, inmates are placed on the waiting list and prioritized for placement in groups by their minimum dates. This is no guarantee of placement in a group by one's minimum date, and there is no way of anticipating when someone will be placed in group; questions regarding when one will start group cannot be answered because new receptions are constantly arriving. Eligibility for pre-release will not be a consideration for prioritizing group enrollment."
"There are now over 300 people convicted of sex offenses incarcerated at SRCF-Mercer and, without additional resources, there is no end in sight to the backlog of people placed on the waiting list."
"Inquiries concerning anticipated starting dates will not be fruitful. This is unfortunate, given the parole board's policy that a convicted sex offender will not be considered for parole without extensive group involvement, but at this time there is no reasonable way of dealing with this situation. It is important to keep in mind that the Psychology Department has other duties which by necessity require a higher priority, and that sex offender treatment must be considered a privilege, rather than a right. Also, sex offender treatment is not offered on an individual basis."
"Individuals who have previously had the opportunity for treatment, but have failed to follow through on recommendations, should not expect special consideration in this matter; this would not be fair to those who have had no prior opportunities."
Correspondence with Commissioner Martin Horn
I sent the two memos from Mr. Dunstan to several state legislators, with a cover letter, for comment. (Commissioner Horn of the Department of Corrections does not answer correspondence from me.) In my letter I stated:
The failure to provide sex offender programs leads to three problems:
1. The inmate is kept in prison until his maximum date at a cost of $26,000 per year, much more than it would cost to provide the necessary program.
2. The sex offender leaves prison without benefit of the program and the good it could do him (not to mention the rest of us who might become his next victims).
3. The inmate leaves prison embittered against a government that would not provide him the programs that it requires and thus extended his prison stay.
Senator J. Doyle Corman forwarded my letter to Commissioner Horn and requested that he reply to the points that I raised. Commissioner Horn's response to Senator Corman was, in part:
"One of the reasons that I have not aggressively sought funds for these programs (i. e. sex offender programs) is that the research literature does not categorically demonstrate that these programs are effective in rehabilitating sex offenders.ÉSex offenders tend to have very high recidivism rates, and the crimes that they commit are intergenerational. Offenders were themselves victims and new victims become future offenders. For that reason, I don't think it is inappropriate for these offenders to serve lengthy prison terms."
I replied to Senator Corman as follows:
"The argument about lack of funds is not an answer to the point that I raised that it would be cheaper to provide the program than to keep the offender incarcerated. The other argument that sex offenders programs are not very effective, that there is a high rate of recidivism, and that sex offenders deserve to serve their maximum sentences may well be correct. However Commissioner Horn was not given the authority to make the judgment about the length of time that a sex offender should serve."
"In our system of law in Pennsylvania, a judge sets a minimum and a maximum sentence. If the offender shows good progress towards rehabilitation, he should be released at or near his minimum sentence. If he does not show good progress, he serves his maximum or near his maximum sentence. The Parole Board is given the authority to make the judgment. The Parole Board can require that certain programs be completed to demonstrate progress. It is the obligation of the Department of Corrections to provide the programs."
"Commissioner Horn's position is that he knows better than the judges or the Parole Board about how much time an inmate should serve. He may be right. However for him to enforce his judgment tramples on the law."