CATONSVILLE, Md. — A state task force on sex offenders is pondering this puzzle: Which convicted offenders are mentally ill and which are incorrigible psychopaths?
Separating them may be the key to reforming the way Maryland courts handle hundreds of such cases each year.
“We’re not going to gain public safety if we treat the untreatable, and we’re going to have expense to no end if we incarcerate the treatable,” panel leader Richard B. Rosenblatt said. “We have to figure out who is in which group.”
Until now, no one has bothered to ask. The state’s criminal code and sentencing guidelines draw no such distinctions. There is a public perception that sexual predators cannot be cured and a clamor to lock them up indefinitely.
Yet most first-time sex offenders receive no jail time; they are placed on probation instead. Without a civil commitment law, which the task force seems unlikely to propose, virtually all incarcerated sex offenders will be released eventually.
Mr. Rosenblatt said the panel, which began work last spring, is focusing on three main areas for the recommendations it will make to the General Assembly by Oct. 1:
Sentencing guidelines that may include tougher penalties for criminal psychopaths and therapy for offenders diagnosed with sexual disorders.
Closer supervision of sex offenders by parole and probation officers.
More thorough assessment of imprisoned sex offenders to identify those who suffer from sexual disorders and may benefit from treatment.
Mr. Rosenblatt, director of the Patuxent Institution, a state psychiatric prison, did not mention civil commitment in an interview last week.
Attorney General Joseph J. Curran Jr. has endorsed the concept, legal in 16 states, of indefinitely confining violent sex offenders in psychiatric facilities. But task force leaders say that is costly, and some mental health professionals consider it unethical.
The panel is leaning instead toward recommending treatment — both in prison and after release — for pedophiles, exhibitionists, voyeurs, fetishists, sadists, masochists and gropers — the most common clinical diagnoses in the class of mental disorders called paraphilia.
A paraphilia disorder may lead one to commit a crime, but not all sex offenders are paraphiles, said Dr. Maria Haine, chief psychiatrist with the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. For example, rapists are universally angry, power-seeking and sociopathic but may not have a sexual disorder, she said.
Although sex offenses may be driven by a sexual disorder in some criminals, many of those offenses are driven by a sociopathic or psychopathic personality disorder characterized by a lifelong pattern of deceit, irresponsibility, violence, disregard for rules and lack of remorse, Mr. Rosenblatt wrote in a preliminary task force report released last week.
It generally is believed that such individuals do not respond to treatment, he said.
“The psychopath in society represents one of the greatest public dangers,” Mr. Rosenblatt said.
On the other hand, studies suggest that people with paraphilia disorders can reduce the likelihood of repeating their offenses by learning to detect the thoughts, feelings and behavioral patterns that led them to commit a sexual crime.
Dr. Haine said group therapy, behavioral conditioning and abstinence from drugs and alcohol are key components of the treatment used.
Mr. Rosenblatt cautioned against the temptation to lump all sex offenders together.
“If somebody is truly suffering from a paraphilia disorder so that they can be amenable to treatment, well, swell, let’s get them into treatment,” he said. “But if they’re psychopaths or sociopaths or otherwise not amenable to treatment, we shouldn’t be looking to a treatment provider as a source of public safety.
“We should be looking to Public Safety for additional incarceration.”