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Should a sex offender be sentenced based on his age and education, among other factors? A proposed change in sentencing guidelines says yes.

Righteous or Risky?

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If certain Virginia lawmakers have their way, convicted sex offenders, including those whose victims are children, may face longer prison terms due to a possible criminal justice policy change. In June, the head of the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission presented recommendations for a sentencing system that would "score" an offender for recidivism, or the likelihood that he or she would offend again. The higher the score, the longer the recommended sentence.

The "risk assessment" score sheet would evaluate a number of factors including the offender's age, the age of the victim, the relationship of the victim to the offender, whether or not the offender committed two or more felonies and the offender's education, among others.

The policy change could put rapists and other sexual criminals in prison for up to 67 years, but only if judges follow the risk-assessment score sheet, which is voluntary. Current guidelines for rapists recommend a maximum prison sentence of 17 years, and many who commit lesser sexual offenses don't serve prison time at all.

The proposed criminal punishment changes are a long time coming for many parents, child advocates and victim organizations who cite the high rate of recidivism among sexual offenders.

"Anything we can do to help determine the risk to the public is worth considering," says Stephen Jurentkuff, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Virginia, a Richmond-based organization dedicated to protecting children from neglect and abuse. "I like the concept. We really need to protect our children."

Support for the policy change has encouraged lawmakers. But even they admit the proposal is a departure from the way Virginia has traditionally sentenced criminals.

"This is very cutting-edge," says Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, R-Virginia Beach. "Not only do no other states have this sort of policy, but they haven't even done the research."

Stolle is chairman of the Virginia Crime Commission, as well as the Senate Finance's public safety subcommittee. A supporter of the proposal, Stolle believes it's in the best interest of Virginia families to make the proposal official.

"The whole purpose behind the risk assessment is to identify those offenders who are a risk to our families and incarcerate them until they are no longer a risk to our families," he says.

The policy proposal is based on research conducted by the commission over a three-year period from 1990 to 1993. The commission tracked 600 sex offenders during that period and found that offenders whose scores were 44 or higher on the risk assessment had recidivism rates of 100 percent, and those who scored between 34 and 43 had recidivism rates of up to 92 percent.

"We found factors that directly correlated with recidivism," says Rick Kern, executive director of the Sentencing Commission.

While many legislators and parents support the proposed policy change, others are concerned that the assessment score-card system violates civil rights.

"This concerns us a great deal," says Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. "What we're talking about doing here is giving people longer sentences based on factors that correlate with the possibility that they will repeat the crime, but yet there would be no causal relationship. That's like saying people who like hot dogs are more likely to repeat a crime than people who don't."

What's more, Willis says the proposal is clearly discriminatory.

"You are basing something on a characteristic that you have no control over," he says. "You have no choice about your age and many don't have a choice when it comes to their education. When we start basing sentences on education and gender, how far are we from saying blacks should have longer sentences than whites?

"There's nothing to say that the state can't give longer sentences to begin with. But we shouldn't punish offenders based on their age or education. To do this removes the individuality of punishment. And punishment should always be individualized."

Willis also wonders if by approving measures such as risk assessment, Virginia legislators might be less likely to provide offenders with treatment programs and counseling sessions.

"What we're seeing is the state taking the easy way out. Rather than trying to understand this category of offender, legislators are coming up with cute solutions," Willis says.

Virginia legislators insist the state has no intention of cutting treatment programs for rapists and pedophiles. Kern notes that lawmakers have begun restoring funds for treatment programs in prison. But Kern also questions whether or not such programs are truly helpful.

"There's very little evidence that treatment programs are effective," says Kern. "I haven't seen any good methodically done study that ties a decrease in recidivism with treatment programs."

The proposal will be presented in a formal report by the end of the summer, and will likely be taken up by the General Assembly early next year. Whatever the outcome, both sides of the issue are bracing for a heated showdown.

"This is going to be a very interesting debate," says

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