Sean Hosman is a leading voice in the national push to transform the justice system by predicting which criminals will commit crimes again. He also is a repeat offender himself, whose trips in and out of jail provide a striking case study of the movement he helps lead.
Hosman is CEO of Assessments.com, a Utah company with about 100 contracts with state and county governments from Florida to California. An early advocate and true believer in the industry, Hosman has spoken at justice forums in Texas, Idaho and Washington state.
He also has been a frequent visitor to county jails in his home state of Utah and other states in the West. Since 2010, Hosman has been arrested at least nine times, four for DUI and one for cocaine possession. Just like tens of thousands of defendants undergoing this expanding process known as risk assessment, he has been booked, assessed, jailed and sent to rehab.
Hosman’s company is a player in a movement that has received little public attention. Most states now use some form of risk assessment, which includes questionnaires that explore issues beyond criminal history, to help set treatment or sentencing conditions. Advocates said the tools replace gut instincts with hard data, saving the public money by routing low-risk offenders away from prison.
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Yet an Associated Press examination discovered significant problems. Assessments work only if every other piece of the system does, too.
If defendants fudge the truth, or probation officials do not diligently check the facts, the tools can prove meaningless. Critics complain the assessments can punish people for poverty, taking into account factors such as work history and family background.
The AP found instances when inmates were released from prisons in Arkansas and Texas and deemed low-risk but later charged in separate crimes of raping an elderly woman and being a serial killer.
Hosman’s company has developed tools for the juvenile and adult systems.
Of his own legal problems, Hosman said he has been clean since July 5, 2012, the date of his last DUI.
“It has changed my perspective on a number of things,” Hosman, 48, said from Salt Lake City, where his company is based. “But in some ways it has strengthened my belief that the work I’ve been doing is even more necessary than it was. If anything it underscores the need for individuals to be treated like individuals, and not like the crime they committed.”
As he spun through the justice system, his company kept winning government contracts.
In six states alone — California, Florida, Washington State, Wyoming, Texas and Delaware — Assessments.com won contracts worth more than $10 million, the AP found. Although a significant goal is cost savings, some of the contracts saw the price rise, such as Florida, where the contract eventually tripled in cost over its initial estimates.
Some encountered problems.
In California, a grand jury examining conflict-of-interest questions in Yolo County reported that Hosman once showed up to a training session bruised and smelling of alcohol. In Wyoming, officials who learned about Hosman’s criminal record told the AP they plan to handle some functions in-house once the contract ends in June, saving the state thousands of dollars.
One of Hosman’s questionnaires, known as Positive Achievement Change Tool, is designed for juveniles and includes more than 120 questions. It explores the youth’s view on the value of education, interaction with teachers, use of free time and connection to anti-social friends.
In Broward County, Florida, the public defender’s office files a motion in every juvenile case seeking to block use of the scoring tool, which was adapted from one created in Washington state.
“It’s a very dangerous path that will lead those in the criminal justice system, I won’t say with a hard heart, it’s a sterile heart,” said Howard Finkelstein, Broward’s chief public defender. “The judge is looking at the number, the prosecutor is looking at a number. Nobody’s looking at the person in front of them.”
The one-page objection alleges that the process violates constitutional rights, and invokes the juvenile’s right to remain silent.
“It’s like playing future cop. It’s throwing darts at a dartboard,” said Gordon Weekes, chief assistant public defender of Broward County’s Juvenile System.
Weekes believes the tools are geared toward saving the government money, steering juveniles out of intensive programs into less-costly supervision.
“This is not an insurance company where we’re trying to decide how much we’re going to pay for life insurance and we look at you on a scale and decide if you’re 30 and don’t smoke, your life insurance is x amount of dollars,” he said. “This is people’s lives we’re talking about.”
Advocates said a major push is to triage the low-risk away from prison.
Otherwise, Hosman said, low-level offenders could be susceptible to a “waiting room” effect: “If you walk into a waiting room in the doctor’s office and you’re not that sick but there’s a lot of folks sicker than you, you walk out, oftentimes, more sick.”
California probation official Brian Richart, who worked with Hosman as president of Assessments.com in 2010 and 2011, said the tools replace “gut-level” instincts with an approach akin to a “medical model.”
CONTRACTS AND COSTS
One focus is to save money. But sometimes, contract costs rise.
Hosman won his first Florida government contract in 2005, worth up to $760,000. The contract was amended eight times, adding costs for training, curriculum development, license fees and maintenance. It was extended another year, to end in April 2009. By then its cost had climbed to $2.1 million. Four subsequent contracts bumped the overall price tag to $3 million.
Hosman said the process is expensive because of the training and follow-up required to transform systems unfamiliar with this new method. “The cost savings just ridiculously outweigh the cost,” he said. “It benefits the system and it benefits the individuals, and it benefits the public.”
Florida juvenile justice officials say a variety of factors affected the price, but spokeswoman Heather DiGiacomo said the program “has repeatedly been shown to be a valid predictor of risk to reoffend.”
In Wyoming, which has spent more than $1 million so far on contracts with Hosman’s company, the agency began to study the program’s effectiveness in 2012. Then it learned of Hosman’s criminal record and put the study on hold. The California grand jury report, released that year, had noted some of his cases.
“Whenever you see that kind of an issue with a contractor you do stop and take stock of it and see what the impact of the behavior might be on the instrument or the process, or the money you are paying or just the perception of public confidence,” said Anthony “Tony” Lewis, spokesman for the Wyoming Department of Family Services. “We were concerned.”
Wyoming continued with the contract, but Lewis said the state agency plans to let at least one contract component expire, saving $180,000.
In California, the company has won contracts with nearly 80 percent the state’s counties, 46 of 58.
In Yolo County, the probation department approved more than $500,000 in contracts, but a grand jury report cited ethics conflicts. The report said former Chief Probation Officer Marjorie Rist oversaw the contract while maintaining a relationship with Hosman, including making trips to help get him into rehab.
When Hosman provided training between November 2010 and March 2011, he sometimes showed up late, distracted and “appeared jittery and edgy,” the grand jury reported. Once, Hosman was “bruised, beat up and smelled of alcohol.”
In February and March of 2012, Rist traveled to help Hosman get into a rehabilitation program, using airline miles earned through Yolo County government travel, the grand jury found. It questioned a $33,000 payment she authorized to his company.
In response to the grand jury investigation, Yolo County acknowledged that Rist maintained a “dual relationship” with Hosman while overseeing the contract with his company. The county did not agree with every finding — saying, for instance, that Rist alone did not approve all company invoices. It said no policy prohibited use of airline miles for personal travel, and concluded there was “no evidence that Assessments.com received overly favorable treatment.”
Rist resigned her county job months before the report’s release and since 2012 has worked for Assessments.com. When the AP interviewed Hosman in Utah, Rist was there, he said, to provide moral support. They say Rist approved the payment the grand jury questioned during a period when a receiver, not Hosman, ran Assessments.com.
“Marjorie Rist, in even her public capacity, did absolutely everything right and nothing wrong,” Hosman said.
SHARING HIS STORY, IN PART
Last March, Hosman shared some of his personal journey at the Monroe Correctional Complex near Seattle as part of a daylong forum on prison reform. He told inmates and prison officials about his own descent and quest for sobriety.
“Hello, my name is Sean,” he said. “And I am an alcoholic and an addict.”
Hosman, a lawyer raised in a politically active family in Alaska, said he wanted inmates to know “here is someone who had been where they had been, who still believed the system can be improved.”
Though he shared his fight with addiction, Hosman did not mention the arrests.
As he fought addiction, Hosman said in an interview, he largely turned over corporate duties to colleagues. “Once I became an addict, my ability to function dipped,” he said. “But I had great staff.”
Public records describe four alcohol-related driving arrests since 2010, along with charges for cocaine possession, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and violating a domestic court order. In many cases, Hosman was represented by Brett Tolman, the former U.S. attorney for Utah.
In October 2010, Hosman was arrested at his home in Bountiful, Utah, on charges of intoxication, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest after repeatedly dialing 911 and trying to reach police in Anchorage, Alaska.
He cursed responding officers, a police report said, and was handcuffed. He was arrested again five days later after an early morning disturbance at his home linked to drinking, when he kicked a door so hard it woke up one of his children, and his wife called 911 before hanging up, records show.
By November, Hosman was in treatment in California, court files showed. The intoxication charge was dismissed after he completed community service and a rehab program, and the second case was likewise dismissed.
In early 2011, his company won contracts in Delaware and California to predict future crime and guide treatments. On Aug. 19, 2011, he was cited for disorderly conduct in Bountiful. That charge was dismissed after he completed rehab, marriage counseling and community service.
In November 2011, Hosman’s wife requested a protective order. Later that month, Hosman signed another contract with Florida’s juvenile justice department.
In January 2012, he was arrested in Clark County, Nevada, for possession of cocaine and drug paraphernalia after an officer saw his car parked on a sidewalk in front of a no-parking sign, with Hosman sitting alone, the driver’s door open.
Police found cocaine in a black plastic wrapper in his pants pocket, and four glass smoking pipes and other paraphernalia in his laptop bag. Hosman told police he was “addicted to narcotics” and bought the drugs from a woman in North Las Vegas, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police report said.
The case, charged as a felony, was amended as a misdemeanor and ultimately dismissed after Hosman attended drug counseling, completed community service and paid $500 bail, court records show.
Three days later, Hosman was arrested for DUI in Utah, the first of three such charges in the state over seven months. He had another case in Sacramento County, California, in May 2011, in which he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of driving with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.15 percent or higher.
In April 2012 in Utah, he was charged after a neighbor saw him walking around his ex-wife’s house, peering inside windows and appearing to look for a key, despite an order barring him from being there, a Bountiful police report said. Hosman pleaded guilty to violating a protective order.
After a DUI arrest in Utah in April 2012, Hosman had to be held down so officers could take his blood to test for alcohol, the police report said.
Two days later, Humboldt County, California entered into an agreement with Hosman’s company.
After a July 2012 DUI arrest, four troopers had to hold him down to take his blood alcohol level, the report said.
“I have definitely turned a corner,” he said in the interview. “I’ve been clean and sober since July 5th, 2012. But, I work at it every day. I think it’s a lifelong sort of journey.”
Booked eight times at the Salt Lake County and Davis County jails in Utah, and other times in Nevada and California, Hosman said he completed portions of the risk assessment process several times and was diagnosed with substance abuse issues.
The Salt Lake County Jail assesses defendants using a tool by the University of Utah. It explores seven core questions, including arrest history, age and age at first conviction, and substance abuse. Additional questions explore whether the defendant had suicidal thoughts and whether a victim was involved. The reports are confidential.
Hosman said he had a full assessment after he completed rehab, and was deemed a low risk to reoffend. “I have been assessed a number of different times but not a full risk-and-needs assessment until the end,” he said, “and I haven’t offended since that time.”
He said he came clean with the realization he would stand in court and appear before a judge for sentencing.
“That was a life changing day for me,” he said.
Though his last DUI came in 2012, legal issues continued. In December 2013, Utah elevated his January 2012 charge, initially a misdemeanor, to a felony — citing his subsequent DUIs in Salt Lake and the alcohol-related driving charge in California.
Hosman was booked by the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office in January 2014 and released eight days later on time served for the DUI charge, jail records show.
In Washington state, he told his audience that relapse is part of recovery. He called his speech, “Ready, Willing and Enabled.” Offenders must be ready and willing to turn the corner but often need help, as he did. “I want to get rid of the negative connotation of enabling,” he said, drawing applause.
After opening by saying he was an addict, Hosman took a breath, and gave a second opening.
“Hello, my name is Sean Hosman, and I am the president and owner of a company that works closely with criminal justice.”