Treat and Release: How Utah weighs the risk of repeat sex offenders
May 24, 2023, 10:18 PM | Updated: May 25, 2023, 11:42 am
RICHFIELD, Utah — Surveillance camera footage from a Utah high school captured the moment a convicted sex offender, barred from setting foot on school grounds, pulled up next to a teenage girl and asked to buy her underwear in December 2021.
It was far from his first offense.
In January, a woman reported to the Taylorsville Police Department that a recently paroled sex offender brutally raped her in her home, threatened her life and the life of her son, and assaulted her cats.
He, too, has prior victims.
In Utah, rape is the only violent crime reported at a higher rate than the national average. In the series Failure to Protect, the KSL Investigators have revealed failures to fully investigate and prosecute sexual assault cases.
Now, focusing on cases that do lead to convictions, the KSL Investigators examine Utah’s corrections system, which is responsible for treating and releasing people who commit sex crimes.
‘He’s already re-offended’
Christopher Peck, 43, was behind the wheel of the red truck seen on surveillance video prowling the parking lots at Richfield High School. Zoomed in, the video offers a grainy view of a cheerleader getting into her car.
The teenage girl later reported to police that Peck, parked next to her, asked to buy her underwear for $30.
Just 13 months earlier, Utah’s Board of Pardons and Parole chose to release Peck. He served a little more than 11 years of a one-to-20-year sentence for sexually abusing another minor in 2009.
“It was, you know, my best friend’s stepdad,” Jessica Black, now 26, recalled. “He should have protected me, and yet he assaulted me.”
KSL doesn’t typically name victims of sexual assault; Black wanted to use her name.
She was disappointed to learn about his latest offense in 2021, she said, but not surprised. She’d previously begged members of Utah’s parole board to keep him locked up.
“At the last parole hearing, she told the parole board, ‘This is going to be on you, because we’ll be back,’” Jessica’s mother, Brenda Black, recalled. “And here we are.”
Jessica’s plea to board members happened during a special hearing in 2020. She said she was not notified of his parole hearing as required by Utah’s constitution, and it was held without her. Despite the board scheduling another hearing to allow her to come and speak, she believes the decision was already made.
“For them to release him, after all the other times he’s offended is very shocking,” she said. “Within two years, he’s already reoffended.”
Black wasn’t his first victim.
Peck was convicted and served time for a sex crime against a child in 2003. During a parole hearing in 2010, shortly after Peck’s conviction for abusing Jessica, the hearing officer noted he’d disclosed several other crimes while participating in sex offense treatment.
“At the time that you were in treatment before, you admitted that you had four uncharged victims that were under the age of 16, that you had additional victims that were over the age of 18, that you have engaged in voyeurism and also exposing yourself and masturbating in public some 100 times,” the hearing officer said. “So, we’re talking about a long history, not just what we can point our fingers to and say that you were prosecuted for as well.”
Peck told them treatment had previously not worked for him because he was in denial and asked to participate in sex offense treatment again.
“Until I get the help to change the way I’m thinking, I should not be released from prison,” he said. “I have a serious problem, and I need help with it. I can’t control it by myself, I need some kind of tools to help me with it.”
A decade later, in 2020, Peck completed sex offense treatment in prison and was granted release, despite warnings to the board from Jessica Black and her family.
“You need to look at every child and ask yourself, ‘Is this his next victim?’” Jessica warned during Peck’s last hearing.
Peck apologized for what he’d done.
“I think it’s just bull pucky,” Jessica said. “You know, you can’t be sorry for doing that. And he didn’t just do it one time. It was multiple, so, he’s not sorry. He’s sorry he got caught.”
‘It was terrifying’
In January, Susan, who asked that KSL not use her last name, reported to police that she’d been raped by a different convicted sex offender, 43-year-old Christopher Browning.
“It was very brutal, very cruel,” she said. “It was terrifying.”
Susan told Taylorsville Police that she’d befriended Browning, through her volunteer work as a prisoner advocate. Susan’s son is incarcerated for a sex crime and served time with Browning.
“He often told me that, you know, I was really the only support person that he had,” Susan said, “kind of a surrogate mom to him.”
Less than 45 days after his release on parole, Susan said Browning came to her home to meet her for the first time in person. While there, he learned there was a warrant out for his arrest for a parole violation.
Susan said he snapped.
“The first thing he said is, ‘Well, since I’m going back to prison, I’m going to make it worth my while,’” Susan told the KSL Investigators.
Charging documents show Susan told police Browning strangled her to the point that she believes she passed out, strangled one of her cats and threw another against the wall, raped her, forced her to shower and then held her at knifepoint and threatened her life and her son’s life. Eventually, she said he took her phone and left. That’s when she went to a neighbor’s home for help.
“The worst part of all of it was just the sheer unpredictability of his actions,” she said. “What would he do? Would he finish me off? Would he not?”
Browning also brought up her efforts to help people who are incarcerated, Susan said. “He kept telling me over and over again, ‘I’m a monster,’ and, ‘What do you think of criminal justice work now?’”
Susan is 72 years old.
“I’m a mom. I’m a grandmother,” she said. “I think it’s a good thing to remember that it isn’t about sex, it’s about control, or, you know, imposing one’s will on another. And there’s no age group for that. It can happen to anyone at any age. And you know, once again, I’m living proof of that.”
Audio recordings of Browning’s parole board hearings reveal he disclosed an additional victim to the board in a sexual assault for which he’d never been charged. And previous reporting by the KSL Investigators details multiple sexual assaults in his past, as well as fights in prison while he was incarcerated. During his last hearing, he mentioned Susan by name, telling board members she was a friend who’d been helping him.
Despite his admission that he still had anger problems, the board granted him parole in December 2022.
Believing he had been rehabilitated, Susan said she wrote the parole board on Browning’s behalf, advocating for his release.
Sex Offense Treatment in Utah
While Susan and Jessica’s stories have stark differences, they both involve sex offenders, each with prior victims, who were treated in prison and then released.
Susan believes it was the treatment that failed.
“No one, to me, is irredeemable,” she said. “The treatment really needs to be reevaluated.”
Utah’s prison system says it’s made improvements to treatment programs.
“We know that the majority of these individuals, over 90%, are going to return to our communities,” said Anndrea Parrish, director of programming at Utah’s Department of Corrections. “And because of that, we want to ensure that we’re providing evidence-based treatment.”
Parrish said the treatment has changed since a 2016 legislative audit of the program revealed a significant backlog, poor management and oversight, and failures to adopt evidence-based best practices.
Now, she said the treatment is evidence-based, individualized, and effective, but there are still limited resources.
Browning served 20 years before he had the opportunity to start treatment, but Parrish said that timing was intentional and strategic.
“There’s maybe this perception that we can provide a lot of services to everyone for the entire duration of their stay,” Parrish said. “And the reality is we do have constraints. We do have staffing limitations.”
At the new prison, the agency says there are about 50-55 people waiting to start Utah’s core sex offense treatment program. It’s a mix of individual and group therapy, with two to three sessions each week for eight months.
“The logic about having treatment close to when they get released is that that treatment is fresh, they’ve had an opportunity to practice it, to do it in group,” Parrish explained. “So, they’ve exercised kind of their new skills, and then they get released into society.”
Deputy programming director Lena Gustafson said despite commonly held societal beliefs, people who have committed sexual offenses can be successfully rehabilitated.
“There’s tons of research to show that they’re, they are treatable,” she said. “They are amenable to treatment, look at the recidivism rates.”
Utah measures recidivism over three years but not after that point. A Department of Corrections spokesperson said the most recent data available is from 2018, when 453 sex offenders were released.
The state’s data showed 55% of them did not return to custody during the three-year time frame. Of those that did return, most (32%) were re-incarcerated for parole violations. Some (10%) were convicted of new, non-sexual crimes, while 11 people (2.4%) were convicted of a new sex crime.
Gustafson said those who do commit new sex crimes are a small minority and, “I would say the treatment failed them.”
“Our ultimate goal here is no new victims, no new crimes,” Parrish said. “But there’s no perfect recipe to guarantee that every single individual that provided, is provided treatment by us is not going to commit a new crime. We just have to do our best.”
Utah’s Board of Pardons and Parole
Utah’s powerful Board of Pardons and Parole has the ultimate say on who gets out of prison and when. The parole board is independent and separate from the Department of Corrections, its members are appointed by the Governor.
Jessica Black feels the board failed her, and the teenage girl Peck went on to victimize next.
“The police officers did their part. The judge did their part,” Jessica said. “The only people that let us down was the parole board. You know, they’re the final decision makers, and it was very disappointing to hear.”
Another legislative audit released in November states Utah’s Board of Pardons and Parole “could better ensure public safety is appropriately prioritized” and “should improve transparency by publicly providing additional metrics on its operations and decisions.”
Through spokespersons, the board has denied several interview requests from the KSL Investigators, instead releasing statements, noting that both Peck and Browning served sentences longer than Utah’s sentencing guidelines recommended, and both successfully completed sex offense treatment.
Browning served 24 years of a five-to-life sentence, “which was approximately 18 years over Mr. Browning’s sentencing guideline date of August 3, 2004,” a statement from the board noted.
Peck’s 11 years in custody amounted to nearly six years above the guidelines, according to another statement released by the board.
Parrish said prison officials work closely with the board to schedule treatment and provide risk assessments.
“We’re all in it together to try to make a really good guess at risk, right? That’s it, just an educated guess,” she said. “We’re using our assessments, we’re providing good quality treatment that’s individualized, and then we have to take the risk.”
But there is no crystal ball, and sometimes that risk leads to new victims.
“Occasionally, people don’t do well. And that’s the rarity,” said Parrish.
Last year, Utah’s Department of Corrections told KSL that even after completing sex offense treatment, Peck’s risk assessment still showed he had a higher-than-average risk for re-offending, and that information is provided to the parole board before making decisions about release.
This year, when the KSL Investigators asked to know about Browning’s risk score, the agency said that is private information that cannot be released to the public.
“It’s just very frustrating because we don’t ever get answers,” Jessica Black said.
She’s adding her voice to others calling for transparency in how the parole board makes decisions about release.
“I want to make a change,” she said.
Peck pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor charges after the incident at Richfield High School and was sentenced to serve 364 days behind bars. He’s scheduled to appear before the parole board again in September for a determination on whether his parole will be revoked in the case involving Black.
Susan said she’s forgiven Browning and will continue advocating for prisoners, but she’s also testifying against Browning, who could spend the rest of his life behind bars if convicted again – something she’s personally worked against.
“I try to rationalize that and say, ‘I’m probably sparing someone else,’” Susan said. “I suppose there are people who should remain locked up for the duration of their lives. But even they should have an opportunity for some sort of restoration while they’re there.”
Browning has pleaded not guilty to charges including aggravated sexual assault in the case stemming from Susan’s report. His next court date is scheduled for June.
This report is part of a series examining how apparent gaps at every level of Utah’s criminal justice system fail to protect Utahns. If you have experienced sexual violence, you can access help and resources by calling Utah’s 24-hour Sexual Violence Helpline at 1-888-421-1100. You can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 for free, confidential counseling.
Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at firstname.lastname@example.org or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.