Seeking to move away from labels that can work against a person’s rehabilitation, Colorado’s Sex Offender Management Board plans to vote Friday to replace the term “sex offender” in its own guiding principles.
The board is considering several new terms, including clients, adults or individuals “who commit sexual offenses,” “who engage in sexually abusive behavior,” who are “in treatment for engaging in sexually abusive behaviors” or “who have committed sexual offenses.”
The board, which governs the standards for treatment of people convicted of sex offenses, is far from united on the issue of “person-first language” in this context. Members split 8-7 in the spring on a vote to adopt new guiding principles concerning language. Friday’s expected vote would finish off that process.
“I think the biggest thing is research really shows us that assigning a label has the potential for negative effects in rehabilitation,” said Kimberly Kline, a licensed counselor and chair of the board.
Kline has heard the criticism, from prosecutors and others, that it’s unfair to victims of sex offenses to call their perpetrators something other than “sex offender.” Fourth Judicial District Attorney Michael Allen of Colorado Springs told KOAA that using a term like “sex offender” simply “recognizes the gravity” of the offense.
But, Kline argued, it’s unhelpful to victims — not to mention the people in treatment and the public at large — to use labels that may thwart someone’s rehabilitation and successful reintegration into society.
“If we’re talking about how someone speaks about themself, … that can increase risk,” she added. “Ultimately it is victim-centered if we’re reducing risk.”
Any change the board makes to its own language would have no direct effect on policy or on treatment strategies. But many attorneys, people on the sex offender registry and even some victims have criticized Colorado’s management of this population as overly harsh and counterproductive to the goal of rehabilitation. There’s a wide body of research showing that forced social isolation through the registry does not increase public safety.
“We often walk a really fine line,” Kline said. “We want to make sure there is still accountability for these offenses while also being victim-centered around that.”
Ironically, even if the board votes to scrap “sex offender,” it cannot change its own name. The legislature oversees the Sex Offender Management Board and would have to agree to any change.
Lawmakers earlier this year considered — but did not pass — a broad reform bill that, among other things, would have updated state statute to eliminate the term “sexually violent predator.” That’s a term used to describe a subset of people under the “sex offender label,” and one that the board agrees is outdated.
But it’s not clear yet whether the legislature will follow up on that work in the 2022 session, which begins in January.
Democratic state Rep. Kerry Tipper of Lakewood, who pushed the reform bill this year, told The Denver Post on Monday, “I haven’t decided whether or not I’m going to bring legislation. There is a bipartisan proposal that I’m looking at, (but) I need to talk with stakeholders, including the victim’s rights groups.”
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