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Louisiana Law Enforcement Officers Are Moonlighting For A Controversial Pipeline Company

Off-duty law enforcement officers are using state resources to work side jobs for the pipeline company.

Probation and parole officers arrested pipeline protesters while working secondary jobs providing security to the pipeline company.
Karen Savage

Louisiana Law Enforcement Officers Are Moonlighting For A Controversial Pipeline Company

Off-duty law enforcement officers are using state resources to work side jobs for the pipeline company.


Karen Savage is an investigative journalist currently embedded with the L’eau Est La Vie resistance camp in Louisiana. She was arrested in the course of reporting this article.


Pipeline protester Cindy Spoon was trying to stop Energy Transfer Partners’ heavy tree-cutting equipment from coming onto a pristine cypress forest-covered island in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin. As she paddled in the bayou on Aug. 9, fan boats roared around her, blowing her canoe backward and kettling her in a smaller bayou.

Within minutes, Spoon and fellow activist Sophia Cook-Phillips were handcuffed and yanked out of the canoe by armed officers who refused to fully identify themselves.

“What law enforcement agency are you with and where are you taking me?” Spoon asked repeatedly, her voice cracking and growing increasingly frantic as she was pulled up a steep embankment and dragged onto Energy Transfer Partners’ Bayou Bridge pipeline easement.

Spoon and Cook-Phillips later learned they were being detained and dragged onto the construction site by probation and parole officers for the state of Louisiana who were working side jobs for an Energy Transfer Partners contractor.

Spoon, who prefers to be called a water protector, said she knew she was allowed to be on navigable waters, which are generally open to fishermen and members of the public who recreate in the basin.  She also knew that setting foot on land where the pipeline was being constructed could result in a felony.

“Despite being informed by law enforcement that the waterways are public and free to use, Louisiana probation and parole officers—acting as ETP’s private security—were allowed to…rip us out from our canoe while in the middle of the public waterway and turn us over to the police to be arrested without question,” said Spoon, adding that local police didn’t even pretend to act like they are in charge.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s who.

A probation and parole officer wore a hat emblazoned with the word “police” in the Atchafalaya Basin on August 8, 2018.
Karen Savage

A recent increase in resistance to the pipeline project by Spoon and others has revealed a cozy relationship between Energy Transfer Partners and state and local law enforcement officers who work side jobs for security firms contracted by the pipeline company. At the same time, stakes for those opposing the project have never been higher. A new Louisiana law significantly increases the legal consequences for protesters, allowing for felony charges to be filed against those who engage in certain types of nonviolent direct action. Activists and some legal experts are questioning whether officers who are on the payroll of private security firms contracted by Energy Transfer Partners are able to adequately protect the constitutional rights of individuals who oppose the project.

Sometimes officers use state-owned vehicles and other equipment while working these private security jobs.

Anne White Hat, co-founder of the resistance group L’eau Est La Vie, said interactions between probation and parole officers and St. Martin Parish sheriff’s deputies demonstrate the murky relationship between both local and state officials and Energy Transfer Partners, a private corporation. Probation and parole officers appear to be directing the deputies, she added.

Changing the rules

On at least three occasions—one in April experienced by this reporter and two reported by pipeline opponents—probation and parole officers have used state-owned vehicles to make motor vehicle stops while working for the pipeline company.

In all three instances, drivers say they pulled over because the officers wore either shirts or hats that said “police” and appeared to be with a local law enforcement agency.

According to state guidelines provided to The Appeal by the department in late July, probation and parole officers need permission from their district administrator to work second jobs.

The guidelines provided in July also stipulated that state-owned equipment cannot be used while working second jobs unless that work is “under the auspices/authority of an outside law enforcement agency,” which is defined as an “agency with the authority to make arrests and includes city police, sheriff’s office, campus police, state police or federal law enforcement agencies.”

But probation and parole officers are allowed to use department-issued equipment and state-owned vehicles while working secondary assignments, Ken Pastorick, communications director for the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said in an email on Aug. 15.

When asked in a phone interview a few days later about the discrepancy between the state guidelines The Appeal was given in July and actual practices, Pastorick said the guidelines had been revised and said he would send the current version, which he did a few hours later.

During the interview, Pastorick said the Department of Corrections has been working on the new policy for about a year and a half.

“The old guidelines spelled out that they could not use it [equipment] without the permission of the director, so now you still have to get the permission of the director, but it spells out in there that while on these details, you can use your service weapon, you can use your unit, you can use your uniform—the old policy wasn’t like that,” he said.

Pastorick said officers must obtain permission from the department to work secondary jobs, and once they receive permission, officers are allowed to use their service weapon, their uniform and their vehicle.

“Now, with that said, while they’re working, they’re not in the capacity of a probation and parole officer, but they are in the capacity of a state peace officer—a certified, credentialed state peace officer,” said Pastorick.

“So, they have the same arrest powers and police powers as somebody who might be working for the Louisiana State Police or probation and parole during their regular detail or a city police officer or sheriff’s deputy. But while they’re working those extra duty details, they’re not working for the department, they’re working independently, using their commission to work for companies like Hub or Athos to provide security for that pipeline,” he said, adding that officers are low-paid and often supplement their income with second jobs.

“You know when you look at my officer and with that Louisiana state map on his or her left chest and you see that badge, you know that’s an official law enforcement agent,” said Pastorick, who reiterated that while working outside jobs, the officers are using their commission to work independently.

Guidelines later received by The Appeal from Pastorick were dated Aug. 17—the day of the phone interview. A note in the revised guidelines says “08/17/2018; Supersedes policy PER 218 dated 03/06/2015.” Metadata shows the document was created about an hour after the phone interview.

The revised guidelines now allow for the use of state-issued equipment and state-owned vehicles in the performance of agency-approved jobs.

Pastorick did not respond to multiple requests for further comment.

Probation and parole officers detained water protectors while working secondary jobs for the pipeline company in the Atchafalaya Basin on August 9, 2018.
Karen Savage

Spoon and Cook-Phillips, along with Eric Moll, who was also arrested that day, are the first in Louisiana to be charged under a new state law that increases the stakes for protesters by redefining pipelines as critical infrastructure and imposing felony charges on those convicted of entering pipeline construction sites without authorization.

The new law went into effect Aug. 1. Spoon, Cook-Phillips, and Moll, who were arrested on Aug. 9, were each freed on a $10,000 bond. If convicted, each could face a sentence of imprisonment with or without hard labor for up to five years and fines up to $1,000.

Bill Quigley, a New Orleans law professor who is representing the three pro bono, said similar nonviolent protests previously would have been considered misdemeanors.

“In fact, dozens of protesters have been arrested for the same or similar conduct for the past few months—every single one was charged with a misdemeanor. Many did not even have to put up bond,” said Quigley, referring to activists who engaged in nonviolent protests against the Bayou Bridge pipeline before August.

“Now, all of a sudden, the exact same actions are serious felonies with $10,000 bonds?  This is precisely the hypercriminalization of protest that critics of the new law predicted,” he said, adding that in both instances activists report they were on either public property or on private property with the permission of the owners.

“Yet the powerful pipeline corporations have orchestrated the state legislature to enact new laws [and] hired state law enforcement to enforce the new laws,” said Quigley.

Bills criminalizing many forms of pipeline protests have been proposed in several states, including Wyoming, Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Most are modeled under the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council’s Critical Infrastructure Protection Act, which defines pipelines as “critical infrastructure” and imposes harsh sentences and heavy fines to those convicted of entering a facility without the express permission of the landowner.   

Quigley said it’s unclear how the new law would apply on public trust land. While the definition of which waterways are navigable and what rights landowners have has been subject to debate, he said in this case the activists were on public trust waters and should not have been arrested. If the district attorney presses charges, he said, they will challenge the new law in court as part of their defense.

Pipeline police

Photos from the day of Spoon’s arrest show that armed security officers for the Bayou Bridge project wore badges and uniforms identifying them as probation and parole officers. Some also wore dark blue hats and shirts with “POLICE” in large white letters.

When Spoon and this reporter asked which law enforcement agency they work for, a few said they work “for the state.” One officer said to call the Department of Corrections in Baton Rouge for more information on the arrests. Most refused to answer.

Deputies with the St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Office, the local law enforcement agency, arrived about 30 minutes after the incident took place. They arrested and charged the protesters under the new felony law based on information given to them by probation and parole officers, who had removed Spoon, Cook-Phillips, and Moll from the waterway and onto the land portion of the easement at the direction of pipeline supervisors.  

A more recent incident took place on cypress tree-covered land in the Atchafalaya Basin that is jointly owned by hundreds of individuals. In a petition filed against several hundred property co-owners in July, Energy Transfer Partners said it has easement agreements with nearly additional 350 co-owners, but is seeking a judgement of expropriation against the remaining co-owners.

To prevent further construction, several landowners who oppose the project have given activists permission to occupy the land. Generally, guests on private property need only the permission of one owner in order to be legally present.

Despite having permission to be on the land, five pipeline opponents and this reporter were arrested last weekend by St. Martin Parish sheriff’s deputies. All but one were charged with felonies under the new law.

The company must have easement agreements with or expropriation judgments against all landowners in order to legally proceed with construction, Robert Verchick, professor of environmental law at Loyola University New Orleans, told Inside Climate News. The company has cut cypress trees, dug a trench and is in the process of moving pipeline through the property.

Deputies are allowing the company to continue to work.

“The fact that this company is allowed to do whatever it wants while the rights of our water protectors are being trampled, while landowners’ rights are being trampled, really makes me question who the St. Martin Parish deputies are working for,” said Cherri Foytlin, co-founder of the L’eau Est La Vie resistance camp.

“In North Dakota, they paid TigerSwan mercenaries to terrorize water protectors,” said Foytlin. She expressed similar worries about what could happen in Louisiana given the relationship between ETP and local law enforcement, adding that one activist was tased and another threatened with a semi-automatic weapon.

St. Martin Parish sheriff’s deputies told those arrested that they have signed affidavits from some of the landowners and told activists they are not allowed on the property. When asked, deputies would not say which landowners had signed the affidavits, nor could they provide copies of the documents.

The St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.  

The resistance grows

Construction of the Bayou Bridge pipeline was controversial before it began. It is part of a larger project intended to connect Energy Transfer Partners’ Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota to refineries in St. James Parish and nearby export terminals.

Normally sparsely attended, public permitting hearings overflowed and contentious debates broke out between industry speakers and pipeline opponents.

Founded by four Native women, L’eau Est La Vie launched last year and activists began nonviolent direct actions against the project nearly as soon as construction began in January.

It is believed to be the first-ever large-scale resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the previously oil-friendly state.

In recent months, activists have ramped up the resistance, engaging in tree sits and other nonviolent direct actions in the Atchafalaya Basin, all aimed at protecting the swamp’s delicate ecosystem. They also hope to spur public officials to require the company to provide an evacuation route for St. James.

Because of the resistance, Energy Transfer Partners maintains a hefty security force.

The company has relied on at least three firms—Hub Enterprises, Athos Group, and Hillard Heintze—to monitor the 163-mile route and to keep tabs on those who oppose the project.

To fulfill that mission, Athos and Hub hired probation and parole officers, employees of the state of Louisiana under the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, to fill those jobs.

Between September 2016 and July 2018, nearly 60 officers assigned to the Louisiana Division of Probation and Parole were approved to work secondary jobs providing pipeline security through one or both of the companies.

Since The Appeal began its investigation, probation and parole officers have stopped working for the Bayou Bridge project.

“Our officers are out of that detail now and I believe that you can talk to Hub and I’ve heard that Hub has maybe some St. Martin Parish deputies working that detail now,” Pastorick said.

Citing a confidentiality agreement with Energy Transfer Partners, Hub Enterprises declined to comment.

An Energy Transfer Partners spokesperson said the company is thankful for local and state law enforcement, but declined to comment on their security firms or on the arrests.

A representative for the St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

It is unknown how many, if any, deputies from the department work secondary jobs for Bayou Bridge.

Quigley, the activists’ attorney, said he finds it very troubling that a big corporation can come into the state and hire state and local law enforcement employees as their private security guards.

“Once hired, the corporation has the private benefit of public employees showing up in state law enforcement uniforms with state-issued weapons and state-issued gear to impose the power of the state on behalf of the highest bidder,” he said.

“What shows the raw power of big money more than bringing in the big guns of state law enforcement?  This is an absolute abuse of public trust,” Quigley added.

White Hat said, “They are targeting strong women, who are inherently protectors of the water and they’re coming straight at us in a very cowardly way.”  She added that “ultimately what’s at stake is clean water for our kids—for more than 300,000 people, for the city of New Orleans and for South Louisiana.”

“We’re not going to let people bully us around like that,” White Hat said. “They will be held accountable.”

A new study reveals that police militarization does not keep anyone safe

A new study reveals that police militarization does not keep anyone safe


What you’ll read today 

  • Spotlight: A new study reveals that police militarization does not keep anyone safe

  • Cannabis activists or ‘dangerous criminals’? Upcoming trials test the limits of legalization in Alaska

  • Doxxed by Berkeley police

  • California lawmakers scale back legislation aimed at holding police accountable for killing civilians

  • Texas prisons vote to slash cost of inmate calls home by more than 75 percent

  • Texas sinks poor drivers deep into debt

  • Woman who falsely accused football players of rape rolls her eyes during victim statements

In the Spotlight

A new study reveals that police militarization does not keep anyone safe

According to a new study of 9,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S., arguably the first systematic analysis on the use and consequences of militarized force, police militarization neither reduces rates of violent crime nor increases officer safety. The report, published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, found that Maryland police are more likely to deploy militarized units in Black neighborhoods, confirming a long-held suspicion. Many law enforcement leaders consider SWAT teams and other militarized units as a necessity for police and public safety, especially for “high risk” hostage situations or active shooters. The Department of Defense transferred $4.3 billion in military equipment to local law agencies between 1997 and 2014. But the study found that police militarization may work against police in the court of public opinion, and that merely seeing militarized units can erode public confidence in law enforcement and lead people to believe that a police department is overfunded. [Nsikan Akpan / PBS News Hour]

The 2014 police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown sparked a wave of clashes between protesters and law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri, and the public saw images of unarmed people of color standing up against snipers and police atop armored vehicles. The ensuing conversation about race and police militarization inspired Stanford graduate student Jonathan Mummolo, who conducted the study. “I started getting curious about what we actually know about militarized policing, in terms of the claimed benefits and the purported costs that are asserted by critics,” said Mummolo, a political scientist who now works at Princeton University. [Nsikan Akpan / PBS News Hour]

The study focused on data from Maryland, where a state law required that police agencies submit reports on how and how often they used their SWAT teams. The law was in effect from 2010 through 2014, after which the legislature allowed it to expire. After controlling for variables such as crime rates, Mummolo found that for every 10 percent increase in the Black population, there was a 10 percent increase in the likelihood that a SWAT team will conduct a raid in that ZIP code. [Radley Balko / Washington Post]

In two separate surveys, Mummolo showed volunteers a story about a police chief asking for a budget increase. Volunteers got one of four photos with the story: One depicted cops in their traditional blue uniforms, and the other three showed various degrees of militarization, culminating with a photo from Ferguson of heavily armed officers surrounding an armored vehicle, with a sniper perched on the roof. He then asked the respondents questions about crime and policing. The high-militarization photo caused a statistically significant increase in the perceived level of crime and a drop in desire for more police patrols in their own neighborhoods. It also caused support for police funding to fall. “Hey, maybe this is the way to bring law enforcement on board with demilitarization,” suggested Radley Balko in the Washington Post. [Radley Balko / Washington Post]

SWAT teams are not incorrect when they argue that they are needed to confront hostage takers, active shooters, and other immediate threats to public safety, but in practice “they’re mostly used to serve warrants on low-level drug offenders.” The Maryland data showed that 90 percent of SWAT raids in that state were to serve search warrants, half for nonviolent crimes, the overwhelming majority of those being drug crimes. In Utah, data released in 2015 showed that less than 5 percent of SWAT deployments were in response to a violent crime in progress, 0.5 percent turned up illegal firearms, but 83 percent were to serve search warrants for drug crimes. [Radley Balko / Washington Post]

“In a federalist system with more than 15,000 state and local law enforcement agencies and virtually no standardized reporting requirements, reliable and comprehensive data on police behavior, including the presence and usage of militarized units, have eluded scholars for decades,” Mummolo writes. “And even those with the time and resources to gather and assemble the records themselves face systemic barriers.” He sent hundreds of open records requests to local agencies, but many don’t track militarized activity at all, and those that do often track it poorly, refuse to share it, purge it after a set number of years, heavily redact, or demand exorbitant fees. Mummolo focused on Maryland’s  short-lived law requiring every police agency in the state to record SWAT activity in a uniform manner. This was not a quixotic quest to better understand of law enforcement, but rather a “response to intense political pressure following a botched SWAT raid in which a local sheriff’s department forced its way into a suburban Maryland mayor’s house, shot and killed his two dogs, and interrogated him and his wife on unfounded suspicion of drug trafficking.” [Jonathan Mummolo / The Atlantic]

“[I]n a nation led by politicians who claim to value transparency and a commitment to improving the quality of policing, it should not be this difficult to learn what police do,” Mummolo concludes. “If America is serious about improving police behavior tomorrow, policy analysts need to know what police are doing today.” All the good intentions avowed by Republicans and Democrats intent on criminal justice reform “won’t do a thing … unless governments first commit to bringing police behavior into the light.” [Jonathan Mummolo / The Atlantic]

Stories From The Appeal

Charlo Greene defends herself in court. [Illustration by Anagraph. Video illustration via Anchorage Daily News]

Cannabis Activists or ‘Dangerous Criminals’? Upcoming Trials Test the Limits of Legalization in Alaska. The state is moving to punish people who say they were charged before regulations were clear. [Michael Sainato]

Doxxed By Berkeley Police. Critics say the Berkeley Police Department’s unusual practice of posting anti-fascist protesters’ mugshots on Twitter endangers activists and violates free speech rights. [Scott Morris]

Stories From Around the Country

California lawmakers scale back legislation aimed at holding police accountable for killing civilians: In its current form, the bill no longer makes it easier under state law for prosecutors to criminally charge officers if they use deadly force. Instead, the measure would now toughen internal police policies, letting departments discipline officers and face civil lawsuits if new use-of-force standards are violated. The debate has been fierce, with civil rights advocates enlisting the help of celebrities for online advertisements and law enforcement groups getting plenty of radio spots in Southern California. In its new form, the bill would require police departments to update their policies about when officers are allowed to use force, and would require officers to exhaust reasonable alternatives before turning to deadly force. But prior versions of the law would have made it easier to criminally prosecute officers for killing civilians by letting prosecutors consider whether an officer’s actions before a killing were reckless and by directly restricting when officers can use deadly force. [Liam Dillon / Los Angeles Times]

Texas prisons vote to slash cost of inmate calls home by more than 75 percent: “Now, instead of paying an average of 26 cents per minute, prisoners will pay 6 cents per minute—no matter the destination of the call,” reports the Houston Chronicle. “Also, the limit on phone calls was increased from 20 minutes to 30 minutes.” The shift comes amid national conversations about the price of prison phone calls after last year’s federal court ruling that struck down an Obama-era Federal Communications Commission cap on costs. As mandated by Texas law, the contractor gets 60 percent of the phone revenue and the state gets 40 percent, which is divided between a victims fund and the state’s general fund. Because that distribution of proceeds is mandated by law, it could not be addressed through contractual negotiations, which were hammered out after a request for proposal and months of evaluation. The contractor, CenturyLink, will update existing hardware and install new video visitation technology which will not replace in-person visits. [Keri Blakinger / Houston Chronicle]

Texas sinks poor drivers deep into debt: Texans with unpaid traffic tickets can lose their licenses through policies that automatically suspend licenses if fees are not paid within a certain amount of time or if people fail to appear in court. The program was initially a way to fund the state’s emergency trauma care system, but it has resulted in a deepening cycle of debt for those who cannot afford to pay. “Non-public safety related offenses like driving without insurance or a valid license make up the vast majority of unpaid surcharge cases” according to the Texas Tribune, while driving under the influence and speeding comprise less than 12 percent of the unpaid surcharge cases. “There is now nearly universal agreement among state lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, that the program is deeply flawed and unfairly penalizes the most vulnerable members of society.” At a Senate hearing earlier this year, Republican Don Huffines said the program had created a “permanent underclass,” dividing “society by those who can pay the fines and those who can’t.” [Morgan Smith / Texas Tribune]

Woman who falsely accused football players of rape rolls her eyes during victim statements: Nikki Yovino was sentenced last week to one year incarceration for making false rape claims against two football players at a Connecticut college. She had claimed she was raped by two men during a party in 2016, but later admitted to making up the allegations to gain sympathy. In court, while one of the victims spoke about how her false allegations ruined his life, Yovino rolled her eyes. Someone standing close to her also said she was groaning in annoyance. One of the victims said he lost his football scholarship because of the allegations and now suffers from depression and anxiety. “She accused me of what I believe to be a horrendous, horrific crime out of her own selfish concerns,” the unidentified student’s statement read, according to The Hour. “I lost my scholarship, my dream of continuing to play football and now I am in debt $30,000 and I’m simply trying to get ahead as best as I can.” [Blue Telusma / The Grio]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

Have a tip for The Appeal? Write to us at tips@theappeal.org. A good tip is a clear description of newsworthy information that is supported by documented evidence.

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Case Of Intellectually Disabled Teen Falsely Accused of Sex Offense Reveals Registry Flaws

Before Edgar Coker was exonerated in a rape case, he underwent therapy meant to prevent sexual reoffenses. Thousands of kids involved in sexual offenses are forced into therapies like “relapse prevention” that experts say are ineffective.

Edgar Coker with his parents at the University of Virginia School of Law in 2014.
University of Virginia School of Law

Case Of Intellectually Disabled Teen Falsely Accused of Sex Offense Reveals Registry Flaws

Before Edgar Coker was exonerated in a rape case, he underwent therapy meant to prevent sexual reoffenses. Thousands of kids involved in sexual offenses are forced into therapies like “relapse prevention” that experts say are ineffective.


In 2007, when he was 15, Edgar Coker pleaded guilty to raping a friend. Though Coker maintained his innocence and said he had only consensual sex with the accuser, a 14-year-old girl with a mental disability, Coker’s court appointed attorney advised him to enter the guilty plea in order to avoid being charged as an adult and he was sentenced to serve over a year in the Hanover Juvenile Correctional Facility in Virginia.

With an IQ of 78, Coker himself was deemed borderline intellectually disabled and, two months after he was sentenced, the girl recanted. She said she told the police she was raped when her mother caught her “pulling up her pants” at the family home after having sex with him.

Coker was eventually released and a circuit court in Stafford County vacated his charges. But despite his innocence, Coker underwent therapy at Hanover to prevent him from sexually reoffending, which included admitting guilt in the rape case, according to Jeree Thomas, who performed legal research for Coker’s habeas petition that led to his exoneration in 2014.

“Treatment is helpful, but for [kids] who are in sex offender treatment, they have to show remorse,” Thomas, now a policy director at the Campaign for Youth Justice, told The Appeal. “There’s a whole process. In Coker’s case, where he and the young woman were about the same age and intellectual capacity, they told him he needed to say he raped her.”

That kind of treatment, experts say, is ineffective.

Since 2006, when a federal law was enacted that required children convicted (not just charged) of aggravated sexual offenses who are 14 and older to be included on the national sex offender public registry, nearly 200,000 young people have been placed on the registry. African-Americans like Coker are disproportionately represented on the registry; the sex offender registration rate for black people is twice that of whites.

Many young people on the registry have had to undergo psychotherapy, which includes sessions of “relapse prevention”—a type of treatment used for people with substance use disorder—while attending inpatient or detention centers. But relapse prevention has never been proved effective in treating young people who commit sexual offenses. Moreover, studies show that only 5 to 14 percent of juveniles who commit sexual offenses are likely reoffend.

The low recidivism rate has more to do with the way children’s brains develop throughout their teens, according to juvenile justice experts.

“Kids grow up, they enter puberty and they become very sexually curious,” said David Prescott, clinical services development director for the Becket Family of Services, an alliance of nonprofit agencies that studies youth sexual behaviors. “Also, adolescents challenge authority and break rules. So, when you get all of those things in that stage of life, especially with kids less supervised, we shouldn’t be surprised when they do stupid stuff.”

Relapse prevention treatment is under the umbrella of cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, and focuses on self-regulating behavior if individuals find themselves in a situation where they might reoffend.

The therapy  works from a substance use disorder treatment model where, for example, drug users who feel compelled to use are taught to evaluate their situation and walk away. But substance use disorder is far different than a sexual impulse, said Pamela Yates, a Canadian forensic psychology researcher for Cabot Consulting and Research Services.

“The addiction model never fit well,” Yates said. “Sexual behavior is biologically ingrained in individuals. Having a goal of abstaining for individuals is unrealistic and unlikely to be achieved.”

In Virginia, where Coker was sentenced, a state report recommended relapse prevention along with empathy development as options for treatment of youth sex offenders, citing a 2008 study that found that over over 80 percent of mental health professionals supported the treatment. But the report also acknowledged, “given the lack of studies, these components are not designated as evidence based.”

A spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice said the state uses relapse prevention as one treatment option, adding that its program “utilizes an individualized, holistic, cognitive behavioral and strengths-based approach, which encompasses individual, group and family therapies.”

The number of juvenile detention or correctional facilities that use relapse prevention methods is unclear, but a 2009 study—the most recent year available—found that more than 50 percent of jurisdictions in the U.S. and Canada continue to use it for juvenile sex offenders. In some jurisdictions, even more archaic methods are used.

“Some [kids] go into older-school models, where they have kids masturbate to images to the point of pain,” said Paul Shawler with the National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth. Indeed, one treatment model instructed kids to masturbate to an illicit image and then sniff ammonia until their “state of sexual arousal is completely removed.”

There is no federal oversight of treatment for young people who commit sex offenses, so states set the standards. This means that treatment varies from the progressive (multisystemic therapy, or MST, in which young people are encouraged to engage with their communities and families) to non-evidence based (using drugs that reduce arousal).

“People are trying the best with the tools they have,” Shawler said. “But what we do know is the more restrictive [of sexual behavior] we are in our treatments, the more it becomes highly problematic.”

Prescott of Becket Family of Service advocates the Good Lives Model, which uses a combination of MST and CBT that addresses underlying problems—such as feeling emotionally disconnected from peers—that might have turned into an inappropriate touch.

But Yates, the forensic psychologist, says that the Good Lives Model and other progressive treatment models are not widely used. As a result, non-evidence based science that hasn’t been proved effective in reducing recidivism is informing treatment for sex offenders in prisons and detention centers. “Many of these interventions in place just aren’t research-based,” Yates said. “Those are resources that could be redirected into other places” such as MST treatment. “As a result, now, there are practices that actually work against public safety.”

Correction: In a previous version of this story, Pamela Yates was identified as a forensic psychologist and researcher. Because Yates is a non-practicing psychologist, her correct title is forensic psychology researcher.

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