Advocates fear cutting Bethel’s Sex Offender Treatment Program could mean more victims

State budget cuts have reduced Bethel’s Sex Offender Treatment Program to a fraction of its former self. The program’s staff has gone from three members with a combined experience of almost 40 years to one member with four months experience. Now board members, former employees and advocates are saying the change is too much too soon. They fear recidivism will increase, costing the state more money down the line and damaging Yukon-Kuskowkwim Delta communities along the way.

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Mike Grey is the Bethel District Attorney. He regularly sees sex offenders and victims in the courtroom and was one of several community members who wrote letters to Gov. Bill Walker protesting the program cuts.

“It’s a tailor made program for the YK Delta, and I hate to see it flounder for a lack of funding,” Grey said.

Since the Bethel Sex Offender Treatment Program began in 2008, 180 men have completed the program and only three have re-offended. That’s a recidivism rate of 1.7%, less than the state average of 3-5% for sex offenders.

Supporters credit the program’s success to it being created specifically for the YK Delta, using Yup’ik values and culture as its foundation.

Besides regular counseling sessions, the men hunt and fish and then donate the meat to the Tundra Women’s Coalition, the local women and children’s shelter. They also donate meat to their victims’ families when it’s accepted.

The program sets up what it calls safety nets. Those are five people in the offender’s community who know the person’s offenses, their triggers, and watch them when they return to the community.

The program also assembles Victim Impact Panels. Victims and people who work with victims meet with offenders and tell their stories of what it’s like to survive an assault or respond to a scene.

Now the program’s community advisory board and supporters, like Grey, fear all that work will go away.

“I understand tough economic times,” Grey said, “But when you’ve got a program that’s really working, it’s a shame that they can’t find a way to keep getting the funds to keep the program going. And I just hate to see it fall apart, which is what I’m afraid is going to happen.”

Two mental health clinicians started the program, Steve Dempsey and Joan Dewey. Dempsey supervised and came to the program with more than 20 years experience working with sex offenders. For many years, a Yup’ik-speaking case manager worked with them.

Last year, Joan Dewey retired. In July of 2016, the state hired a replacement clinician with no background treating sex offenders. In October, Dempsey’s contract ended and wasn’t renewed. Funding for the case manager ran out about the same time. Now, the entire program is being run by one clinician with four months experience treating sex offenders. Her supervisor is in Juneau.

The cuts were made to help bring the Department of Corrections out of the red, after lawmakers reduced the Department’s budget by more than $8.5 million.

Dempsey’s contract cost just $251,400 annually. He didn’t live in Bethel, and that contract included his salary, per diem, and airfare from Ketchikan every two weeks. The current clinician is being paid less than half that at $92,976.

DOC spokesman Corey Allen Young said the budget cuts made sense.

“In light of the financial situation we’re in,” Young said, “If we can do it a lot cheaper and still have the same results, that’s what we’re going to do.”

When asked what would happen if they don’t get those same results, Young responded, “I mean, it’s just like with anything. You always look at ways to improve and the bottom goal is a successful transition for our inmates inside the institution and when they get out.”

That’s exactly what the board doesn’t think will happen after going so quickly from decades of clinical experience with multiple staff to four months experience with one person.

The DOC expects to save $16,728 per participant.  They want to use the savings to continue the subsistence portion of the program and encourage community involvement.

Grey, the Bethel District Attorney, said if recidivism rises, the cost of prosecuting, imprisoning and treating re-offenders will far outweigh any initial savings. And the cost to communities and victims will be irreparable and immeasurable.

“Being victimized trails and haunts victims for decades,” Grey said. “And if you can avoid one… I mean, what’s the cost of avoiding one victim? What’s the cost of avoiding two victims? What’s the cost of avoiding three victims? How do you measure that?”

The community advisory board for the Bethel Sex Offender Treatment Program met at noon on Wednesday at the Moravian Church to discuss the changes.

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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