By Rex Santus
COLUMBUS - Ohio may be the next state to confine sex offenders beyond their prison sentences.
A bill that would authorize the civil commitment of "sexually violent predators" after incarceration was introduced in the Ohio Senate last week. The bill would also allow GPS tracking of some sex offenders.
Under civil commitment, sex offenders who’ve finished their prison sentences but are thought to still pose a threat to the public would be sent to treatment centers to live until they’re deemed healthy enough to return to society.
More than 20 states already commit some sex offenders after their prison terms. Supporters say it keeps potentially dangerous criminals off the streets and in treatment centers, but detractors say it walks a tightrope between good intentions and constitutional infringement and wastes taxpayers' money.
Sen. Kevin Bacon, a Columbus-area Republican, is sponsoring the bill, and he said there is plenty to iron out before the legislation is finalized.
"We're not married to a proposal yet," he said. "We wanted to get it out early to kind of signify it's an important issue."
While the bill is still short on specifics, it has already caught the attention of legal groups that advocate for the rights of sex offenders.
Amy Borror, spokeswoman for the Ohio Public Defender's office, said a big concern is the money similar practices have cost other states.
"It really ends up becoming a money pit," she said. " . . . People who are civilly committed almost never get out, and it's a population that almost never goes away."
Borror said a certified professional has to believe a committed sex offender is no longer a danger to the public before he or she can be released. More often than not, however, treatment centers are not willing to take that chance, and civil commitment is far more expensive than incarceration, she said. The dollars pile up, and the state has to pick up the check.
Civil commitment of sex criminals also raises questions about human rights, Borror said, because it threatens to violate due process. Confining a released or paroled sex offender to a mental-health facility is arguably just prolonging an expired prison term, she said.
"If they've already served their term that they've been sentenced to as punishment for what they've done, keeping them essentially incarcerated longer raises double jeopardy issues," she said.
Nick Worner, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the greatest concern is that civil commitment practices do not typically reduce sex crimes.
Because sex offenders are one of the most monitored groups in the country, it's often ineffective to add red tape to an already heavily regulated and scarcely resourced bureaucracy, he said.
"The bill wants to crack down on sex offenders," he said. "What it really ends up doing is it adds another layer of bureaucracy and another layer of cost."
Both said their organizations will pay close attention as the legislation develops.
Bacon said the complexity and controversy of holding sex offenders after prison weighs heavy on his mind as he pushes the legislation forward, but he thinks it's too important to shelve.
Sex offenders are more likely than almost any other type of criminal to repeat an offense, he said, but his intention is not to monitor or commit every sex offender.
- This is a lie as well. Sex offenders, based on many studies, have one of the lowest recidivism rates of all other ex-felons, but we don't lock them up beyond their time.
"This would be reserved for a certain class of individuals that could be a threat to society," he said. "Our focus is, first and foremost, protecting society."