This story was updated at 9:30 am on Feb. 14, 2018 with the following editor's note: As we reported previously, George Wilcoxen was sentenced after entering an Alford plea, an Alford plea allows him to maintain his innocence while acknowledging that the prosecution likely had enough evidence for a jury to convict him. Wilcoxsen maintains that he is innocent.
When a Bigfork man was sentenced last month for sexually assaulting a six-year-old child, the victim’s mother thought that would be the last time she’d see him for a while. We’re not using her name to protect the victim’s identity.
"It was my impression right up until the very last minute that would for sure be a prison sentence," she said.
George Wilcoxen, age 73, was sentenced, but not to prison.
The judge gave him 20 years with 15 suspended with the Department of Corrections, plus 30 days in county jail, and he must register as a level one sex offender, the lowest of three tiers.
But being sentenced to the Department of Corrections doesn’t mean prison time.
A few weeks ago, the victim’s mother was notified Wilcoxen was being considered for conditional release back into the community.
"This has been almost un-survivable for our family and our mental health and well-being," she said.
Between 2012 and 2016, 45 percent of people convicted of sexual assault in Montana were sentenced directly to prison. Another 35 percent served no time in confinement under deferred or suspended sentences. The remaining 20 percent were committed to the Department of Corrections ,or DOC, like Wilcoxen.
"We are the only state in the country that have the DOC commitment," says Kim Lahiff, the DOC’s bureau chief for probation and parole.
"The way Montana DOC operates, and where we’ve gone especially in last five to seven years, we are working on individualized case plans for every person in our system," Lahiff says. "It’s very individualized to the specific to needs and risks of that particular offender in combination with the directions from the court in terms of their judgments."
Lahiff says detention centers aren’t great places for rehabilitation. She says studies have shown people respond to treatment better when they remain in the community. Montana also has a chronic jail and prison overcrowding problem. She says the Department has to uphold a three part mandate of protecting the community, providing restoration to the victim and rehabilitating the offender.
But David Castro, a deputy chief within the Department of Corrections, says it’s still unusual for an offender like Wilcoxen to get the type of sentence he got for felony sexual assault on a child.
"It's infrequent that a person sentenced for this crime receives a department of corrections commit," Castro says.
Castro says there’s a range of options for offenders once they’re in the DOC system.
"They run anywhere from community corrections placement on to a community supervision, which is a program run by the DOC. Intensive supervision, to a treatment program, to a pre-release, to a mental health program, all the way to a prison placement," Castro says.
Castro says the judge recommended Wilcoxen be placed on an intensive supervision program, which means he can live at home. Intensive supervision usually lasts six months and requires daily or regular check-ins with a program officer and electronic monitoring.
"And at the initial local level here in this office we reviewed his case," Castro says. "We talked with the provider and the officer, and we forwarded the recommendation that he receive conditional release to the intensive supervision program."
But Wilcoxen’s conditional release was later denied by the DOC director, says Kim Lahiff.
"His recommendation put Mr. Wilcoxen on the path to go to our assessment sanction center in Missoula to receive further assessment and treatment recommendation," Lahiff says, "so that is the path he's currently on."
That means Wilcoxen remains in a locked facility for now. Lahiff says an offender’s time within the Department of Corrections, whether it’s under community supervision, at a treatment program or in prison, is dynamic.
"We just have to go on balance," Lahiff says. "Can we maintain community safety? Are we able to provide protections to a victim through those conditions, through any other added conditions we can add through our purview? And how do we ultimately help everybody move forward? In that, you're trying to find a combination of rehabilitation and accountability."
Wilcoxen was moved last week from the Flathead County Detention Center to the Missoula for additional screenings before he’s placed in a program. And the victim’s mother is just trying to keep up. She had already filed for a restraining order and installed a home security system, and after the sentencing, she signed up for Victim Information & Notification Every Day, or VINE, alerts, which send notifications of an offender's release, transfer or escape from detention.
Two weeks ago she received a call saying Wilcoxen had escaped.
"Your adrenaline, it made me feel sick to my stomach," she says.
An hour later she got another call saying he was back in custody. Wilcoxen had been in the Flathead County Detention Center the whole time.
She’ll receive another VINE alert the next time Wilcoxen is moved following his screening and placement into a treatment program, conditional release or prison.
In 2016, eleven Montanans convicted of sexual assault were committed to the Department of Corrections. The DOC placed five of them in prison. The year before, 11 of 15 went to prison.