Thursday, March 01, 2007

Accord on Bill to Detain Sex Offenders

New York Times - March 1, 2007

ALBANY, March 1 — New York is poised to join more than a dozen states that continue to detain sex offenders after they have finished serving their prison sentences, under an agreement reached this week by Gov. Eliot Spitzer and the State Legislature.

The agreement, which officials said announced today, will bring an end to several years of agonizing debates that pitted victims' rights groups that argued that such laws were needed to protect the public from sex offenders against civil libertarians who were troubled that the state could confine people after their sentences were served.

"We must do all we can to protect society from individuals who prey upon innocents," Mr. Spitzer said in a statement. "This legislation will improve our ability to identify and properly confine the most dangerous sexual predators, while also expanding supervision and treatment of all sex offenders."

The new legislation will call for having mental health experts identify sex offenders in prison who they believe pose a risk of committing new crimes upon their release, state officials said. Those offenders would be tried before a jury, and if the jury decided that they posed a threat, a judge would sentence them to further confinement or would release them under strict supervision.

"This legislation will save lives, protect our children and keep our communities safe by making sure dangerous sexual predators are kept off the streets and get the treatment they so desperately need," the Senate majority leader, Joseph Bruno, said in a statement. "I commend Senator Dale Volker, who has led the fight in the Senate to get civil commitment enacted for almost two decades. The most important responsibility of government is to protect the people, and this legislation will ensure that all New Yorkers, particularly the most vulnerable — our children — are protected from dangerous sexual offenders."

Civil confinement legislation was long championed by the Republican-led Senate and by the former governor, George E. Pataki, a Republican, but it met with resistance in the Democratic-led Assembly, which raised concerns about civil liberties.

For several years, it became a hot-button political issue, with the Republicans accusing the Democrats who opposed it of being soft on crime. Governor Pataki, who failed to get a civil confinement bill passed, started using the state's mental hygiene laws to detain sex offenders in psychiatric hospitals after their prison terms ended, a practice that the Court of Appeals struck down in November.

"Real, effective protection from the threat of sexual crimes has always been the Assembly's goal," Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said in a statement. "This bill contains tough new penalties, eliminates parole for Article 130 sex offenses, mandates long periods of supervision and provides for indefinite civil confinement of dangerous predators. This comprehensive measure ensures viable options for civil confinement while mandating treatment for all offenders."

The mechanics of instituting civil confinement were complex. Some mental health professionals, who would be asked to screen sex offenders and supervise them in confinement, complained that it was a waste of scarce resources to combat mental illness. They warned that some states with similar laws almost never released offenders once they were civilly confined, raising questions about their rehabilitation efforts.

Governor Spitzer, a Democrat who campaigned in support of such legislation, helped persuade the Assembly to reach an agreement, several officials said.

Governor Spitzer made the bill a priority, calling for it recently in his first annual address to the Legislature. And his budget proposal called for the addition of 335 state workers to handle civil confinement efforts, the largest staff increase he has proposed.

The agreement calls for the creation of a new state office of sex offender management, an official briefed on the agreement said. It calls for greater supervision of sex offenders once they are paroled, and would create a new class of crime, a sexually motivated felony, in which prosecutors could try to prove that someone intended to commit a sex crime, even if such a crime was not actually committed, the official said.

Some groups worry about the passage of the new law.

"I think it's a poor piece of public policy, and won't make things better in terms of crime prevention," 
JoAnne Page, the chief executive of the Fortune Society, an advocacy group that promotes rehabilitation and alternatives to incarceration, said on Wednesday. She questioned the ability of a state to predict who will commit a new crime.

But the agreement was hailed as a breakthrough in the Capitol.

Assemblyman Ron Canestrari, the Democratic majority leader, said he was pleased that the governor, the Assembly and the Senate were continuing to reach agreements on new bills even as they battled one another politically.

"I'm pleased with the outcome, and it's another success of this legislative session," he said.

Asked if the agreement was closer to the version proposed by the Assembly or the version proposed by the Senate, he said: "It's a mix. Maybe the fact that we're all not totally satisfied with it is proof that it's a real compromise."

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