Sentence Mitigation: Is it just a defense tactic or can it be a motivator for treatment?

A recent posting about our intensive program for sexual offenders on a professional social network greatly upset a person on the network.  This person felt that it was disgusting that we offer a treatment program that can aide sentence mitigation for people accused of sexual crimes, or to paraphrase, that we help sex offenders get lighter sentences for financial gain.  This upset me greatly as I take our work with people who have committed sex crimes very seriously and consider it prevention of sexual abuse.  As I consider part of my work as an expert to counter emotion with science, I thought to put my own emotions on the back burner and write something educational about sentence mitigation.

What is Sentence Mitigation?

When someone is being sentenced for a crime a judge is obligated to take into consideration all of the information about that person.  It is the job of the prosecution to present evidence of all of the aggravating factors in the case.  These are the things that help them make an argument for stronger and harsher sentences.  Aggravating factors can include prior offenses, vulnerable victims, hate crimes, violence, etc.

It is the job of a defense attorney to present the facts about the person that would support a less harsh sentence.  Any facts presented for sentence mitigation are not related to the guilt of the person, they have acknowledged what they have done (pled guilty). Mitigating factors can be those that were in place prior to the offending such as lack of criminal record, mental illness, addiction, physical illness, history of being abused.  Other mitigating factors are those the occur after the offense has happened.  These can be acceptance of responsibility, rehabilitation post offense (treatment), cooperation with law enforcement, addiction, mental illness, etc.  Mitigating factors do NOT excuse a crime but help provide an explanation. 

Therapy as a Sentence Mitigation Tool

Do defense attorneys suggest clients go to therapy so they have some fuel for sentence mitigation?  In a word, Yes. Many of our clients are referred to us by their attorneys after they have had a visit from the police or the FBI.  This happens basically no matter the type of offense.  DUI?  Get a drug and alcohol assessment.  Domestic Violence charge?  Do some classes.  Assault charge?  Complete an anger management program. 

What most people might not know, but all of us in the treatment community do know, is that very few people self-refer for treatment relating to addictions of any kind or offending.  In over 10 years of practice ownership, I can count on one hand the number of clients who came to treatment with no outside pressure because they felt like they had a problem.  Many clients are pressured into treatment.  This pressure may come from a partner, spouse, employer or the police.  People don’t self-refer for many reasons, shame, fear, stigma and wait until they are caught in some way shape or form be that watching pornography at work, getting a DUI, getting caught in an affair, running up the credit cards with gambling debt, etc. 

The act of going to therapy itself does not help the defense attorney make a mitigation argument.  It is what happens in therapy that can help a defense attorney make a mitigation argument.  If a client is referred by an attorney for treatment, the initial thought might be something like “ok this will look good to the judge.”  Any good therapist will know whether or not a client is taking the therapy work seriously.  If the client is just biding time, trying to look good for a judge, that is reflected in the treatment reports that go to the attorney.  Trust me that bad treatment reports never make it to court.  Same thing for evaluations that deem a client high risk to re-offend.  They hardly ever see the light of day in a court room.

Changing motivations

What gets a person in the door of a therapy office is not necessarily what keeps them there.  The goal with pre-sentence treatment is to help the person move from the “oh shit I’m caught” stage into really deeply and truly looking at their actions and the motivations for the actions.  Though it is popular to believe that people who commit sexual crimes are deviant monsters who deserve to die, most (not all) people who are committing these crimes know they have a problem, feel a good deal of remorse and want to do what they can to help themselves.  Thus, an attorney referral to help with sentence mitigation can turn into a person who really wants to do a lot of work on themselves to get better and make sure they never offend again. 

Sitting at the end of a day filled with many emotions, I reflect on the work I do.  I am proud of the work that I and my staff do working with people who have committed sexual offenses.  I realize that I work with a population of people that the world would rather forget about and many people think don’t deserve treatment.  Though it would be great if more people self-referred, I ultimately don’t care if it is an attorney referral that gets them through the door.  Those of us who work with sexual offenders are doing prevention work. 

My final words are not mine but those of one of my wonderful colleagues:  Everyone deserves treatment.  Period. Full Stop. 

References

https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/mitigating-circumstances-sentencing.html

https://www.justia.com/criminal/aggravating-mitigating-factors/

https://www.criminaldefensemitigation.com/mitigating-factors-criminal-sentencing/

You’re Being Investigated for a Cybersex Crime: The Psychosexual Evaluation

 

So far in our series of articles we have talked about finding a good attorney and a good therapist.  The next step in the process is to talk to your attorney about a psychosexual evaluation.  In most states and in Federal cases, the prosecution will have you undergo an evaluation with a therapist who works either for or on behalf of the state, county or Federal government. It is normally always a good idea to have one done by a psychologist who is not working for the organization that is prosecuting you.

First, what is a psychosexual evaluation?  The evaluation is comprised of an interview with a psychologist, a lot of psychological testing and a review of all forensic documents related to your case.  What tests you take often depends on the clinician who is doing the evaluation.  These objective measures will test for factors that may have both influenced your committing the crime you are accused of and may influence you to commit the crime again.  For example, you will likely do some type of personality test to see if you have any mental health diagnoses that influenced your crime such as depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, etc.  You will also likely be asked to take some test that will assess your likelihood of having a substance abuse problem, as this is sometimes correlated with certain types of crimes.

How do you find the right person to conduct the psychosexual evaluation?  If you have an attorney, he or she may have a psychologist that they work with closely and will refer you to that person.  If you are looking for this person on your own, there are a few things you should be on the lookout for.  First, you need someone who has a Ph.D. and has been trained to give the types of tests that you need.  Not all therapists have the training to be qualified to administer certain psychological tests.  Second, the psychologist who performs your evaluation needs to be experienced in performing psychological evaluations for sex crimes.  Not all forensic psychologists work with sex crimes.  Some, for example, perform evaluations for competency to stand trial.  Third, your evaluator should be a member of ATSA and familiar with the latest research related to offenders of your type of crime.

A question I often am asked is “what happens if the evaluation says something bad?”  My first response to this question is that there is nothing about an evaluation that is “bad.”  An evaluation is a combination of facts, testing results and opinion based on all those elements.  However, if you are concerned about the outcome of the evaluation, there is a solution.  If the evaluator is retained by your attorney and paid for by your attorney, the report then falls under attorney-client privilege as client work product.  This way, if your attorney does not feel that the evaluation will help you, he or she will not use it during your sentencing.

In most cases, the psychosexual evaluation is used for sentence mitigation.  Your attorney may use a favorable evaluation in the plea negotiation process beforehand.  Your psychosexual evaluation will be part of the pre-sentence memorandum that your attorney files with the court prior to your sentencing.  This report will give the judge information as to some of the reasons why you committed your crime as well as provide the judge with some information about your risk of recidivism (commit another crime).  The judge will take all this information into account when they are determining your sentence.

If your attorney does not suggest an evaluation, ask them about it.  Whether or not you need an evaluation or if it may be helpful will depend on your case and your jurisdiction.  We provide these suggestions as they are helpful in our geographic area of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Jennifer Weeks is the owner of Sexual Addiction Treatment Services.  She specializes in the treatment of sexual offenders and cybersex offenders.  Through her program she provides psychosexual evaluations, treatment and expert witness testimony.  SATS also offers coaching services for those people who are being investigated but are not in Pennsylvania.

You’re Being Investigated for a Cybersex Crime: What to look for in a therapist

In my first blog in this series, I wrote about the fact that getting a therapist is one of the first things you need to do when you are under investigation for a cybersex crime.  I briefly mentioned that you will need a specific type of therapist in that post and I am going to expand on what you need to look for in a therapist here.

Given how expensive this entire process is, one’s inclination is to just find a therapist who takes their insurance, can help with the anxiety and depression they are experiencing, though not necessarily specializing in treating people engaging in cybersex crimes.  I understand that thought process.  However, there are some things you need to know.

  1. Many therapists will not work with sex offenders. You would think or hope that someone who works as a mental health counselor would be able to work with anyone without prejudice.  Unfortunately, that is not true.  Research studies have shown that a high percentage of therapists will not work with someone who is attracted to children or has engaged in sexual behavior with a child (even if it is online).  This means that if you go to see just any therapist, you do not know if you are meeting with someone who is personally comfortable working with you.  If they are not, ethically they are to refer you to someone else.  However, not all therapists will do this.   This means that you may get advice biased by their own opinions about sexual offenders and often this is not accurate or helpful.

 

  1. Many therapists are not comfortable talking in depth about sex and sexuality. If you are going to really get to the root of the behavior that led to you engaging in a cybersex crime, you are going to be talking in depth about sexual behaviors.  This means that the therapist you choose to work with needs to be completely comfortable in their own sexuality and able to nonjudgmentally sit with the sexual behaviors of others.  Again, just as not all therapists can work with sex offenders, not all therapists are very comfortable talking about sex and sexuality.  That might sound odd, but it is true.

 

  1. Most therapists are not trained in treating sexual behavior that crosses into offending. In the process of graduate training to become a therapist, unless a person knows they want to specialize in treating sexual behavior problems from the get go, they are likely to receive limited training in the topic.  Normally all counseling programs make students take one course on human sexuality.  That’s it. This means that a general therapist will not have the training or knowledge to help you with the specific issues that brought you to being investigated for a cybersex crime.

 

What do you need to look for in a therapist?

  1. A therapist who has experience working with sexual behaviors. Most therapists will have listed somewhere on their website or Psychology Today profile what types of issues they work with.  If a therapist states that they work with sexual issues such as pornography addiction, sexual dysfunction, or other sexual health problems, they are going to be comfortable talking to you about details of sexual issues.

 

  1. A therapist who has experience working with sexual offending behaviors such as child pornography, sexting minors, online solicitation, etc. This will require a phone call or an email to the therapist and direct questioning.  Have they worked with people in your exact situation before?  If they have not, you might want to continue searching for a therapist who as at least seen a few people who are in your situation.

 

  1. A therapist who has specific training, certification or professional membership to organizations that work with sexual behavior problems. The best thing is to find a therapist who is a member of ATSA. This stands for the Association for Treatment of Sex Abusers.  This is an international organization that is entirely dedicated to research and treatment of people who engage in sexual offending behavior.  The website atsa.com has a referral page where you can find a therapist.  A second tier choice would be to find someone who is a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist through IITAP (www.iitap.com) or trained through SASH (www.sash.net).  If you find a clinician who is experienced in treating your issue and they are not certified or a member of ATSA please make sure they stay informed of the latest treatment research and trends.

 

Again, if you are reading this you are in a very particular situation and need a very particular therapist to help you.  You need a therapist who is comfortable discussing sexuality in all forms, is willing to work with people who are attracted to children, has experience in treating people with sexual offending behavior and is up to date on the latest research in the field.

Dr. Jennifer Weeks is the owner of Sexual Addiction Treatment Services.  She specializes in the treatment of sexual offenders and cybersex offenders.  Through her program she provides psychosexual evaluations, treatment and expert witness testimony.  SATS also offers coaching services for those people who are being investigated but are not in Pennsylvania.

You’re Being Investigated for a Cybersex Crime: Now What?

 

gavel and handcuffs on laptop

If you are reading this blog, either you or someone you care about has recently been visited by the police and are under investigation for a cybersex crime.  You are likely in shock and are likely panicking.  After many years of working with people in this situation, I have learned a thing or two of what to do next.  Even though you might be panicked, immobilized, in shock or depressed, you must take action.

Here is what you need to do right away.

  1. Hire an attorney

If you have the money or can rustle up the money, you need to immediately hire an attorney.  I will talk about what to look for in an attorney in a later post.  What you need to know in these first moments is that you should not just hire the first attorney you talk to.  Talk to several criminal defense attorneys.  Find out how much experience they have working with cybersex cases.  Make sure that the attorney has experience working with cybersex cases at your level.  If the FBI is investigating you, you need an attorney who has experience in Federal Court.  If you cannot afford to hire an attorney, you are going to have to be your own advocate during this process.  A court appointed attorney won’t have the time to give you what a private attorney will.  You will have to do some of the leg work yourself.

  1. Make sure you are safe

When I say make sure you are safe, I mean make sure you are emotionally safe.  People who are investigated for cybersex crimes frequently feel immediately suicidal.  The majority of cybersex offenders have never been in trouble with the law before and the entire process can cause a shame spiral.  If you feel suicidal, go to the emergency room or find a hospital where you can go for a few days to ensure your emotional health and well-being.  If you are the loved one of someone who is under investigation be aware that they may be experiencing suicidal thoughts.

  1. Find a therapist

Now is not the time to just go down the list of in-network treatment providers from your insurance.  You don’t just need a therapist, you need a specialist.  The therapist you see should have experience treating people in your exact situation. They should have experience treating sexual offenders and perhaps pornography addicts.  While many therapists might be able to help you work through the anxiety and depression that will occur related to the investigation, if they don’t have experience working with the specific sexual behaviors or the court process, they will not be as effective as someone who specializes.

The criminal justice system works at a rather slow pace.  You will have time to deal with all of what comes after the investigation.  I will address many of these things in further posts.

If you are newly investigated please do things now and start to let experienced professionals help you through this process.

 

Dr. Jennifer Weeks is a Clinically Certified Sex Offender Treatment Specialist and an expert witness in the areas of sexual offending, cybersex offending and sexual addiction.  For more information on her services please go to the Sexual Addiction Treatment Services website.