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/

Pedophile: What’s in a Label?

The news is awash with reports of famous men, actors, directors, and politicians whose victims are coming forward to report the sexual abuse and sexual harassment they have been subject to at the hands of these people. I applaud the bravery of each and every victim who has come forward to share their painful story. It takes an immense amount of courage to break through years of shame and silence to confront one’s abuser. Bravo. I am glad that these men and women’s voices are being heard and hopefully they can find some sort of justice or closure.

My writing today is not for those brave men and women but for the media. As someone works with sex offenders every day I have a pet peeve. That pet peeve, which sometimes gets me in hot water in facebook posts, is the fact that people throw around the word pedophile every time someone is found to have abused a minor. Besides frequently being inaccurate, it sends a message that pedophiles are the only people who abuse children. It generates fear. If we are truly going to protect children from sexual abuse by adults, we need to spread accurate information and create effective prevention plans.

So, let’s talk about attraction. When we specifically are looking at age, attraction is clinically categorized three ways.

Pedophile: A person who is attracted to PRE-PUBSECENT children. Doesn’t matter the gender of the child. The attraction is to the lack of sexual development.

Hebephile: A person who is attracted to pubescent children. Again, gender does not matter. The attraction is to a child who is in early adolescence and has signs of sexual development.

Teleiophile: A person who is attracted to adults. This attraction is to fully sexually developed adults.

A person does not have to fit into just one category. There are people who are what we call fixed pedophiles. This means they are only attracted to pre-pubescent children. Other people are attracted to several categories of sexual development. I work with many men who are attracted to pre-pubescent children, pubescent minors AND adults. They do not have a fixed attraction but find all ages of people to be sexually arousing.

The next piece of this puzzle is that ATTRACTION DOES NOT EQUAL ACTION. Many people who have a pedophilic or hebephilic attraction do not ever have any sexual contact with minors. They live with this attraction but have the awareness to know that they cannot act on these urges and they can inhibit any behavior toward minors to whom they may be attracted. In the clinical world, we call these folks non-offending pedophiles.

In Germany, there is a great program called Project Dunkelfeld that offers free treatment to any person who identifies as attracted to minors to help ensure they do not act on those attractions. This project runs ads on buses or billboards and runs public service announcements on television. These folks are getting prevention right.

The next piece of the abuse puzzle is that people offend against children for many reasons, only one of which may be sexual attraction. There are many, many reasons why adults sexually abuse children. There are too many to go into here (future post on this topic forthcoming). Only one of the reasons a person sexually abuses a child is attraction. I have worked with many contact sexual offenders against children who were not sexually aroused to children. This may make no sense at all to someone who doesn’t work in this field, but it is true. Why else might someone abuse a child? Power, control, emotional identification with children, using a child as replacement spouse (frequently seen in incest), and/or antisociality to name a few.

As I am sitting here writing this, I am trying to determine why the misuse of the term pedophile pokes my buttons. I think that if we throw around the term pedophile to label anyone who sexually abuses a child we can put them in a metaphorical box. It makes it easy to put abusers into a category and then not think about it as much. We can think, “oh watch out for pedophiles, they abuse children”. Even if it were true, how do you identify one? They look just like you and me and act just like you and me. There is no way to know someone’s sexual preference by looking at them. Labeling gives people a false sense of security that children are abused by people in this category and not by anyone else.

If we put child molesters in this lump category we diminish the complexity of the issue. It is not just about attraction to minors. The people perpetrating the abuse most often are not “the others.” They are most frequently family members or close friends of the family of the children. They are frequently people in positions of power who have the trust of the child and the child’s parents. Abusers are, most often, people that know you and your child. (the exception here being cyber cases).

If we are going to truly protect children from sexual abuse, we need to make sure that everyone has accurate information. Creating a fear reaction to a clinical label does nothing to enhance child safety. What can you do to enhance your child’s safety? Learn the truth about the perpetrators of sexual abuse. Create an open and safe relationship with your child so that you can talk to them about sex, sexuality, sexual boundaries. Learn what grooming is and help them to identify behaviors that make them feel uncomfortable, so they can come to you immediately. Arm yourself with knowledge, not fear.

Dr. Jennifer Weeks is the owner and director of SATS, an out-patient program that treats sexual offenders, problematic sexual behavior and trauma.

Her book The New Age of Sex Education:  How to talk to your teen about pornography and cybersex in the digital age is available on amazon.