Lawmakers, researchers and even some victims seek reform of Colorado’s Sex Offense Management Board.
By ALEX BURNESS | email@example.com | The Denver Post September 6, 2021
Close to 30 years ago, Mr. Bethurum was living in Wray, in his late 40s, when he groomed an underage family member and entered into what he wrongly thought of as a relationship.
He says he now understands now there is no such thing as a “relationship” between a child and an adult. He completed his prison sentence for sexual assault on a child, and today he lives in Cedaredge, a small town in western Colorado.
Bethurum has not reoffended. He’s been involved in his community as a photographer who helps put on veterans’ events and motorcyclist meetups. A local nonprofit earlier this year named him volunteer of the month. After that honor, he said, “Somebody ran my name and found out I was listed on the registry.”
“Now I can’t volunteer anymore,” he said. “All kinds of stuff is spread around town and half of it is not true. I’ve been ostracized in the community… They think of me as the worst of the worst.”
He said he can’t blame them for judging him that way — “What I did was terrible” — but many who work closely with people like Bethurum say that turning them into permanent pariahs is ultimately unhelpful to the cause of rehabilitating them and preventing future sexual violence.
The size of Colorado’s sex offense registry, now at roughly 20,000 people, is but one in a slew of reasons a growing chorus of lawyers, lawmakers, researchers, people on the registry itself, and even some victims of sexual abuse believe Colorado’s system of managing people who committed a sex offense in some cases does more harm than good.
That system is controlled mainly by the state’s powerful Sex Offense Management Board, or SOMB, a 25-member group that sets rules for evaluation, treatment and monitoring of people who committed a sex offense.
That board’s critics argue that this system can demoralize and endlessly punish people who genuinely want to be better, teaching them to see themselves as incurable monsters even decades after their offense — at the expense of more effective and humanizing therapies.
“It’s this rhetoric of ‘tough on crime,’” said Apryl Alexander, an associate professor at the University of Denver who has been a treatment provider in several different states for people who committed a sex offense. “We do have to be tough on crime, I believe that. We have to make our communities safe. The issue is, are our communities safe? Is anything changing? The issue is that, on sexual violence, not much is changing.”
The set of people criticizing the SOMB is not a small one. Repeated state reports in the past decade, including a scathing report by the state auditor last year, have questioned the board’s transparency and resistance to evidence-based best practices.
The auditor found that board members were voting on policy matters to benefit their own firms, and the state has also been accused by its own watchdogs of wasteful spending — as much as $44 million annually, as of 2017 — and delays in getting people past their parole-eligibility date into treatment. Forty-seven people convicted of a sex offense got out of prison last year without receiving treatment, the state reported.
“Strong social support, community relationships, stable housing, good jobs — the person who’s got something to lose in their community tends to behave better,” said Laurie Rose Kepros, director of sexual litigation for the Office of the State Public Defender. “Instead what has happened with the SOMB is that even when they’ve gotten legislative reports, audits, they just keep saying, ‘Oh yeah, we did that, we fixed that.’ But they didn’t and they don’t.”