By Gary Craig
In New York, the end of a criminal sentence for a sex offender doesn't mean he's going free. In 2007, state lawmakers took steps to protect the public from sexual predators. That year they approved a civil commitment program designed to route dangerous sex offenders whose sentences are ending into treatment in secure state psychiatric facilities.
- So instead of evaluating them before sentencing and possibly sentencing them to a longer prison term, they bypass that and just sentence them, and before they get out, spend more money to perform an evaluation on them, which should have been done first, to see if they need to be put into a prison outside of prison. Prison is cheaper, yet they waste tons of more money in committing them to another prison (uncivil commitment) which in most places, costs about three times more than prison. Sounds like they don't know what they are doing to me. Just the usual wasting of money! And people wonder why this country is going down the tubes? Plus, prison is nothing what it was originally intended for, it was a place for rehabilitation and treatment, now it's just a place to warehouse people for a couple years, then let them back out (without treatment) with hopes they will re-offend, so the prison industry can continue to make tons of money at tax payers expense. It's nothing about rehabilitation and treatment, it's all about money!
However, little thought was given to long-term costs or the likelihood that space for treatment could one day become an expensive dilemma.
That day has come.
Only in its fourth year, civil commitment is already coping with cost and space strains. Since many offenders who are locked away are unlikely to be released for years, if ever, the costs will continue to escalate.
- Well, we have people like Nancy Pelosi in office, who says "We must pass the bill so you can find out what is in it!" That is why crap like this happens. They don't let the American people see it before it passes, and many of them don't even read the stuff.
The state Office of Mental Health, or OMH, is now transforming office space and storage areas into bedrooms at a Marcy psychiatric center to make room for the increasing number of sex offenders.
Before the program was even 2 years old, OMH officials warned in a report that "the population growth (of committed offenders) will continue unabated for many years and at costs that may well be unsustainable in an uncertain fiscal climate."
By 2012 OMH, which treats the offenders, will likely need more space for civil commitment, according to spokeswoman Jill Daniels.
Although Republican lawmakers pushed unsuccessfully for civil commitment for years, the program finally cleared its legislative hurdles in 2007 with the vigorous support of then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat. Lawmakers hailed civil commitment as a way to keep New Yorkers safe from the worst sex offenders.
- Maybe Mr. Spitzer needs to reside in the place he helped create?
Civil commitment operates largely outside of public view and scrutiny. The cases are civil — not criminal — and courtrooms can be closed and records sealed because of confidential questions about an offender's mental stability.
Only the case of [name withheld] has garnered statewide attention. The state is trying to commit [name withheld], a drug-dealing drifter who was imprisoned for 12 years for having sex with women while knowing he had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. He is being detained while the civil commitment case continues; the state can hold offenders through the commitment court proceedings.
Sunday, December 26, 2010
By Josh Farley
The picture on [name withheld]’s purple photo badge shows a younger man with amber hair, a glimpse into the past of the now-grayed 44-year-old who’s lived in secure confinement for 21 years.
[name withheld] has been on McNeil Island in south Puget Sound since the state opened the Special Commitment Center (SCC), an indefinite holding facility for those found to meet the statutory definition of a “sexually violent predator.” The Bremerton man, like the other 280 residents there, served his time for a sex crime — in his case sexually abusing boys — in state prison. But when he was about to get out, the state attorney general’s office filed paperwork in Kitsap County Superior Court to have him committed indefinitely.
He keeps himself busy with therapy, group sessions, playing video games and gardening.
[name withheld] was homeless before he went to prison. But he has the potential to go where only a small percentage of the commitment center’s residents have ever gone: to an “LRA” or “less restrictive alternative,” which ultimately means reintegration into society. Such a transition would happen slowly and with around-the-clock monitoring at a facility in Pierce or King County.
He said he’s confronted his sexual deviancy, and staff members at the center have been pleased with the results.
“If you deal with it, you’ll get the help you need,” he said.
The $60 million facility, spread out on five acres on pastoral McNeil Island, has three “program areas.” The most restrictive is a prisonlike pod. The least is a dormitory-style home where residents can come and go, though they’re confined inside the center’s perimeter.
There’s a recreation room, basketball court, yard, pool hall, weight room, barber shop, library, and arts and crafts room for residents. There’s also a groomed lawn with many religious symbols, including a Wiccan Prayer Circle. The facility also has a Native American traditional sweat lodge.
“If they can think it, we have to provide it,” said Dan Gauntz, chief operations officer at the SCC.
Because they’re not prisoners, the residents have access to more freedoms: nonmonitored phone calls, cigarettes, video games (though none with mature themes). They wear their own clothes. There’s no uniforms, though they must always wear the purple badge with their picture and name.
- That depends on what you define prisoner as.
Violence is relatively low, with just a few serious assaults over the course of the center’s history, according to staff. Those who commit them are prosecuted in Pierce County courts. More common are lewd sexual acts, such as public masturbation.
Almost all of the facility’s residents are men. One woman has been committed to the center, and she is from Bremerton. They come from all walks of life. There are former marketing executives, military leaders, and homeless people. “Residents” — they’re not called inmates — are as young as 20 and as old as 80.
Washington’s civil commitment process, established along with sex-offender registration and community notification in 1990, was the pioneer in the nation, and numerous states have copied it.
The courts, both at the federal and at the state level, have ruled that while indefinite commitments are constitutional, the residents confined in them must receive expensive mental health treatment and be allowed to “graduate” to less restrictive environments, including to outright release.
The staff believes it’s a place for treatment. But like its counterparts nationwide, the commitment center suffers from an identity crisis: is it truly a place where the sexually deviant can be helped, or is it an expensive holding tank for the state’s worst sex offenders?
Critics come from different corners.
State Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, said the facility exists for the worst of the worst — and that the state should do as little as is mandated but ensure they remain locked up.
“I personally don’t believe that treatment does much. They are supreme con men,” he said. “They can convince people of a lot of things.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo. She doesn’t believe the facility is constitutional. If an offender’s crime is heinous enough, he or she should be sentenced harshly, she said — but not given a sentence in which they do their time and then are reprosecuted for an offense they might commit in the future.
“The sentence is in perpetuity,” she said.
It costs about $177,000 a year to house each resident at the center, which adds up to about $48 million a year for all those committed. It costs $34,000 a year to house an inmate in a state prison.
Other costs include the roughly $350,000 to put a case before a jury and commit them there, according to the state’s Department of Social and Health Services. Each resident is also entitled to an annual review of their confinement.
State Attorney General Rob McKenna acknowledges that it’s expensive, but he says the center is “highly effective.” Given that many sex abuse victims never disclose the abuse to authorities, McKenna sees an even greater need for the facility. He says that those confined are likely to have many more victims than they were convicted for.
- At one time, prison was a place for rehabilitation and reform, not it's just a place to lock them up, and forget about them for awhile.
Regardless of how stark the budget outlook is for the state, McKenna insists the center must be prioritized and continue.
“It’s so important given the high likelihood of these individuals to reoffend,” he said.
McKenna points to statistics to make the case. In 2005 and 2006, his office filed for the civil commitment of 42 offenders, whose collective abuse created 370 victims. The average age of the victims was 12.
- That may be true for the truly dangerous, but by using these same statistics against the entire sex offender population is just wrong. Plus, like the woman said above, if they are so dangerous, why are they not sentenced to a longer time in prison? Sex offenders in general, have the lowest recidivism rate of any other criminal, yet the media and politicians have reversed that, why? It helps them get elected, makes them money, etc.
He also cites a 1998 study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy that tracked 61 adult offenders who were recommended for the McNeil Island facility from 1990 to 1996. But prosecutors in those cases didn’t believe the need for civil commitment could be proven at trial. McKenna said that of those offenders, more than half were re-arrested in those years — 28 percent for new sex offenses.
- You see, it appears to me this person is using the worse cases, and making it appear that all sex offenders are like this, which is just sick, unfair, and pure deception.
McKenna said that only a small percentage of the approximately 1,000 sex offenders released from prison each year — between 1.5 percent and 3 percent — are recommended by the attorney general’s office for civil commitment.
Part of the expense of the facility comes from the ferry it takes to get there. In 2011, the neighboring McNeil Island Corrections Center will close, further driving up costs. Department of Corrections staff, which run the ferry and provide security, will all be gone. So will inmate labor. That will leave a $2.3 million bill each year for the Department of Social and Health Services, which runs the Special Commitment Center.
- Inmate labor = slave labor!
Moving it does not seem to be a possibility, according to some.
“Can you imagine the problem of putting it in a neighborhood someplace?” said state Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor.
Cathi Harris, associate superintendent of the SCC, once questioned the constitutionality of such a commitment center. But she said she saw that predators who wanted help could change.
“This is a group of individuals thrown away by society,” she said. “I don’t believe in warehousing people. I believe in providing people the resources they need to change if they want to.”
[name withheld], the center’s sole female resident, is a former Bremerton woman who admits to sexually abusing more than 15 children, both girls and boys. She was convicted of child rape in Pierce County.
She herself was molested, but she said she’s not making excuses.
“You did it because you wanted to,” she said.
Like the other residents interviewed for this story, she believes the treatment is giving her tools, including forming a “relapse plan,” so she won’t reoffend.
“I’ve learned things to help keep me safe when I’m out in the community,” she said. “I don’t want to die in here.”
[name withheld] and [name withheld] are actually in the minority on the island. They are part of the 36 percent that have bought into the program and the treatment.
The other 64 percent refuse treatment, and many feel their only avenue is release by the courts — a path that has been successful for about 14 men in the facility’s history, according to DSHS.
“This is a prison!” a few residents grumbled during a recent media tour of the grounds.
There are residents who will stay for the rest of their lives.
Treatment of any sort requires the residents to admit they have a problem. While some residents may be willing to disclose their transgressions, they’re skeptical of how that information is used, said John Cross, a lawyer who represents SCC residents.
“What most of these guys have realized is that nothing is confidential,” he said. “They’re being cast with being transparent, saying every bad thing they’ve ever done in their lives. But a great many of them recognize this is evidence-gathering by the opposition.”
[name withheld], like most residents at the commitment center, had done his time for sex-abuse crimes and was about to be released from prison when he received a notice from the state attorney general’s office.
In the years that followed, lawyers built the case that [name withheld] fit the definition, created by the community protection act, of a “sexually violent predator.”
A jury indeed found that [name withheld], convicted of numerous sex acts with children, met three legal requirements for his indefinite confinement on McNeil Island:
- He’d been convicted of a crime of sexual violence (and in may cases the victims from those cases are called to testify);
- He suffered from “a mental abnormality or personality disorder which causes serious difficulty in controlling his sexually violent behavior”;
- Such an abnormality or disorder made him “likely to engage in predatory acts of sexual violence if not confined to a secure facility.”
Cross takes issue with the fact that residents are found to be sexually violent predators beyond a reasonable doubt. He said that psychologists and psychiatrists — the expert witnesses that sway jurors to or away from a commitment at McNeil Island — often develop a “working hypothesis” that might find a potential resident to be a pedophile or have an anti-social disorder. Problem is, the same doctor could develop an entirely different hypothesis later.
“There is nothing true beyond a reasonable doubt,” Cross said of the cases. “They just don’t know enough about us (as human beings) yet to make these broad decisions.”
[name withheld], a 30-year-old resident from Walla Walla, said he believes in the treatment process and hopes he can be successful enough to one day leave the island. He’s admitted to having more than 15 victims.
“I’m a sex offender. There’s no denying that,” he said.
Still, he does question the court process that claims he has a scientific disorder.
“Who’s to say I have a predisposed mental condition, beyond a reasonable doubt?” he wondered.
Port Orchard lawyer David Lacross, who represents some SCC residents, said he believes that flipping a coin would be just as accurate as trying to predict a resident reoffending. And attempting to do so means locking people up.
“These are people that society is not going to have a lot of sympathy for,” Lacross argues. “But they were tried, convicted and sentenced. And we’re talking about predicting what somebody’s going to do in the future.”
All of the controversy will diminish as fewer convicts are committed, predicts David Boerner, a member of the task force that drafted what would become the state’s community protection act.
Boerner said the creation of “determinate-plus sentencing” for certain sex offenders in the early 2000s will whittle the number of potential civil commitment candidates.
Certain sex offenders receive a minimum sentence. When their sentence is up, they go before the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board, whose members are appointed by the governor. The board has the power to hold indefinitely offenders it believes are more likely than not to reoffend.
Only offenders sentenced to the most serious sex crimes are subject to the board.
The SCC will remain for criminals who fail to meet the criteria for determinate-plus sentencing but who still meet the criteria for sexually violent predator.
[name withheld] thinks he has a shot to get out, and has been approved to join just 14 others permitted outside the barbed wire to a more transitional-style housing.
He thinks that he has the tools to survive on the outside.
Should he feel the urge to reoffend, he has support staff he can call. And while he was in denial when he arrived, he said he’s changed his thinking. “If you don’t try to get it (the illness) out, you’re going to make it worse.”