DENVER — Normally, sunset review bills rarely make the news; the reviews are a regular part of the legislative process that happen every so often in order to review certain committees, boards, etc. and to renew their duties.
Without periodical review legislation, the boards would sunset, or dissolve. Once again this year, the Sex Offender Management Board is up for review.
The board oversees the management and treatment of the state’s roughly 24,000 registered sex offenders and is charged with prioritizing the protection of victims and potential victims.
After a scathing audit of the board last year in which the members were criticized for potential conflicts of interest, not investigating allegations of wrongdoing by treatment providers thoroughly enough, a lack of transparency and accountability, etc. House Bill 1320 offers major changes to the way the board operates.
The bill as originally introduced was only eight pages long and didn’t offer sweeping reforms. However, for the past few weeks the bill cosponsors have been meeting with various stakeholders behind closed doors to discuss a number of amendments, including more than one complete rewrite.
A draft version of a strike below amendment, which completely rewrites the bill, was 33 pages long and drew widespread criticism from the Colorado District Attorney’s Council and victims’ rights groups who said it would hurt the victims most affected by these crimes.
Denver7 obtained a copy of that draft version. Part of it prohibited the board from keeping an offender imprisoned simply because they continued to deny being involved in the crime they were convicted of, saying it is a common, self-protective psychological defense mechanism.
Another portion specified that treatment providers must not be required to restrict contact with children. A third portion called for the Department of Corrections to work to identify offenders who could safely start recommended treatments after their release.
Current law specified that a sex offender with an indeterminant sentence must complete treatment before being able to be paroled. However, there is a significant backlog in offenders waiting for treatment. The backlog was not caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The district attorney’s council and victims’ groups obtained a copy of the bill and reached out to news stations including Denver7 to express their concern.
Since then, another complete rewrite of the bill has happened. Denver7 also obtained a copy of that 32-page draft amendment, which was in the committee hearing Wednesday.
Notably, the portions about contact with a minor and denial of wrongdoing were removed from the bill entirely.
Meanwhile, the portion about identifying offenders who could safely be released before treatment was rewritten. Instead, it calls for the DOC to identify inmates who need treatment and then work with the board and the Division of Parole to find solutions to deal with the backlog and get people into treatment.
Rep. Kerry Tipper, D-Lakewood, one of the bill’s authors, warned there are likely even more changes to come.
However, the District Attorney’s Council worries release without treatment may still be possible, even under the new language.
“This is definitely a population of individuals where we know that treatment is critically important and not just any treatment but treatment that has certain standards and guidelines,” said Maggie Conboy, an assistant district attorney from the Denver District Attorney’s Office. “What we want to see is that we are treating people according to the risk and making sure that they get the proper treatment as they progress through the system and that we don’t lower those standards or lessen that treatment until such time that people are ready to progress.”
Victims’ rights advocates also have concerns about the message this bill’s language sends to the victims themselves.
“I think there’s very strong belief in the victims community that this is not in any way meeting the needs of victims,” said Jean McAllister, a lead consultant with the WINGS Foundation.
McAllister was the administrator of the board in the 90s and says she doesn’t believe the solution to overcrowding in jails is to lower the standards for sex offenders.
However, Tipper insisted the bill is not meant to help offenders get out of prison more easily but to try to address the issues brought up in the audit.
“Under no circumstances are we saying just waive the provision that they get treatment, absolutely not. We’re saying we need to figure something out,” Tipper said. “What I think we are looking at doing in the bill is just giving the sex offender management board, the SOMB, a specific directive to say look at this issue, identify what the problems are, why there’s this backlog and craft solutions.”
If the state does not do something to address the backlog, Tipper worries there could be legal issues that arise.
“Currently, sex offenders are required to complete sex offender treatment, but we have a backlog of individuals who are incarcerated and who have to complete this treatment, but we aren’t giving it to them. So, this is actually becoming a constitutional issue,” Tipper said.
Another portion of the bill changes the makeup of the board, shrinking it down from its current 25 members to just 11 members. Tipper says the board is full of people who are political appointees and she would like to see it narrowed down to only those who have expertise in the area of sexual offense.
Conboy also expressed concerns about wholesale changes to the composition, saying any type of overhaul should be approached with extreme caution.
“There’s always room for working on things and improvement, but as it is right now, we are supportive of the existing structure,” Conboy said.
The bill and its amendments was heard in committee Wednesday evening. More than 50 witnesses signed up to testify either for or against the bill.
The House Appropriations Committee voted to amend HB 1320 to extend the continuation of the board for another two years without making any changes to give the legislature more time to work through reforms that the board requires, according to House Speaker Alec Garnett.