Under pressure from the governor and the state’s public safety director, Colorado’s Sex Offender Management Board has reversed its controversial November decision to scrap the term “sex offenders” in its own guiding principles in favor of “adults who commit sexual offenses.”
The board, commonly referred to as the SOMB, it voted 16-2 on Dec. 17 to “table” the language-change matter and refer it back to a subcommittee. It’s possible the board votes again to change terminology in the future, but the tabling means it’s not likely to happen anytime soon.
This decision followed a 10-6 vote by the board in November to stop using “sex offenders” in its own principles and policies. The board controls treatment standards for people convicted of sex offenses, and changing the language in this way would not have affected treatment or management policies. But it was hailed by supporters as an important step away from labels and toward “person-first” language that research shows can improve rehabilitation prospects.
After the November vote, however, the board opened a public comment period. That’s where things went off track.
The language change had gotten coverage on talk radio, on Fox News and in The Daily Caller, in addition to various Colorado outlets. More than 400 people submitted comment on the matter, an overwhelming number for a state board that tends to generate little public attention.
Public defenders and people who’ve committed sexual offenses, plus their family members and advocates, were supportive of the change. But comments from victim advocates and members of the general public were by far in favor of no language change. Law enforcement leaders have also opposed the change from the start.
“The coddling from some of the offender-affiliated representatives was repugnant,” tweeted Colorado sex assault survivor and motivational speaker Kimberly Corban, two days after the vote on a language change. “This shift is offensive for those of us who have experienced victimization at the hands of sex offenders who don’t like their ‘label.’”
On Dec. 16, the day before the board’s reversal vote, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis sent a letter to Kimberly Kline, the chair of the SOMB.
“We must be wary not to normalize violent acts of sexual aggression or even give the appearance of normalizing such unacceptable behavior,” he wrote. “I hope that the Board will re-evaluate its previous decision to allow for additional discussions with the wider community including carefully examining potential trauma to victims and ensuring that a clear message continues to be sent to the general public than non-consentual (sic) sexual aggression is not acceptable or tolerated in Colorado.”
Polis also expressed concern that the SOMB, a 25-member board when fully seated, had only 16 of its members present for the November vote. Polis appointee Stan Hilkey, director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, said the same in his own letter to Kline.
“The oddity of this policy change occurring without a true board majority subjects the SOMB and CDPS to public scrutiny,” Hilkey wrote.
Hilkey suggested that, as director of the department that oversees the SOMB, he would likely reject the new language as a policy change.
“I … wish to avoid a scenario where the Board and the Department are not in alignment on the issue, which would place community trust, credibility and relevance of both entities at peril of reputational harm that could jeopardize our collective success,” he wrote. “While unintended, I am concerned that this is on a path to cause more harm than was trying to be fixed within the narrow intent of the trauma-informed language in the first place.”
Polis and Hilkey got their way, to the frustration of reform-minded advocates.
“The research is overwhelming that how we label people impacts their ability to build healthy, prosocial identities and lifestyles that are incompatible with sexual offending,” Laurie Rose Kepros, director of sexual litigation for the Office of the State Public Defender, told The Denver Post. “The SOMB Standards provide the regulations that govern the professionals charged with supporting these positive changes, so the language should support that mission. Do we want these clients to reoffend or not?”
This was Kline’s argument all along — that the language change was not, in fact, anti-victim, but rather pro-rehabilitation and public safety.
“If we’re talking about how someone speaks about themself, … that can increase risk,” Kline, arguing against labeling people, said ahead of the November vote. “Ultimately it is victim-centered if we’re reducing risk.”
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