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Kristin Murphy, KSL file

Social work expert disagrees with federal law enforcers about sex offender treatment

By Dennis Romboy, KSL | Posted - Dec. 15, 2018 at 2:48 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — A University of Utah social work professor and therapist disagrees with the state’s top federal law enforcement officials' assessment that treatment for child sex offenders doesn’t work.

Rob Butters, who has also worked as a probation officer, said it's unfortunate they made the statement in a public forum because "it's simply not true."

"We know that treatment works a lot better than incarceration," he said. "Prison doesn't make people better. It just keeps them incapacitated."

U.S. Attorney John Huber and FBI Special Agent in Charge Eric Barnhart said in a discussion with reporters Thursday that they are skeptical about the effectiveness of treatment for those who sexually exploit children.

Federal prosecutors have filed 54 cases of child pornography possession, distribution or production this year, 10 more than last year. Some had previous convictions in state court.

"In our career and our experience, rehabilitation — although a laudable goal — is unrealistic in dealing with these types of offenders," Huber said. "Stiff justice is an appropriate remedy, first and foremost, for keeping people safe."

Barnhart said he has not seen data to back up that treatment works.

"The compassionate part of us always wants to say a second chance should be given, but my experience is these people will victimize again," he said.

Butters said nobody wants there to be another victim, but the perception Barnhart and Huber have doesn’t hold up to research. The latest study shows about 20 percent of convicted sex offenders commit crimes again after being released from prison, he said.

Therapy for sex offenders, he said, is more effective than treatment for drug and alcohol abusers considering the number of times they relapse.

"Of course the problem is when you re-offend sexually, that’s a huge difference than if someone just relapses and uses drugs again," he said.

Butters, who has 25 years experience in forensic social work and criminal justice, said he understands the law enforcement point of view when it comes to sex offenders, especially those "engaged in this deep deviant subculture for a number of years and that probably have a very twisted idea of sexuality that could be resistant to change."

High-risk offenders need long stays in prison, but others, he said, benefit from shorter sentences and therapy.

Seeing people re-offend as police and prosecutors do artificially inflates the notion that recidivism is high, Butters said.

"Treatment does work," he said. "It’s just hard to see that when you’re only seeing the bad guys who are coming back and not the good guys."

Dennis Romboy

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