Sunday, March 04, 2007

Doubts Rise as States Hold Sex Offenders After Prison

By Monica Davey and Abbry Goodnough
New York Times - March 4, 2007

The decision by New York to confine sex offenders beyond their prison terms places the state at the forefront of a growing national movement that is popular with politicians and voters. But such programs have almost never met a stated purpose of treating the worst criminals until they no longer pose a threat.

About 2,700 pedophiles, rapists and other sexual offenders are already being held indefinitely, mostly in special treatment centers, under so-called civil commitment programs in 19 states, which on average cost taxpayers four times more than keeping the offenders in prison.

In announcing a deal with legislative leaders on Thursday, Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, suggested that New York's proposed civil commitment law would "become a national model" and go well beyond confining the most violent predators to also include mental health treatment and intensive supervised release for offenders.

"No one has a bill like this, nobody," said State Senator Dale M. Volker, a Republican from western New York and a leading proponent in the Legislature of civil confinement.

But in state after state, such expectations have fallen short. The United States Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the laws in part because their aim is to furnish treatment if possible, not punish someone twice for the same crime. Yet only a small fraction of committed offenders have ever completed treatment to the point where they could be released free and clear.

Leroy Hendricks, a convicted child molester in Kansas, finished his prison term 13 years ago, but he remains locked up at a cost to taxpayers in that state of $185,000 a year — more than eight times the cost of keeping someone in prison there.

Mr. Hendricks, who is 72 and unsuccessfully challenged his confinement in the Supreme Court, spends most days in a wheelchair or leaning on a cane, because of diabetes, circulation ailments and the effects of a stroke. He may not live long enough to "graduate" from treatment.

Few ever make such progress: Nationwide, of the 250 offenders released unconditionally since the first law was passed in 1990, about half of them were let go on legal or technical grounds unrelated to treatment.

Still, political leaders, like those in New York, are vastly expanding such programs to keep large numbers of rapists and pedophiles off the streets after their prison terms in a response to public fury over grisly sex crimes.

In Coalinga, Calif., a $388 million facility will allow the state to greatly expand the offenders it holds to 1,500. Florida, Minnesota, Nebraska, Virginia and Wisconsin are also adding beds.

At the federal level, President Bush has signed a law offering money to states that commit sex offenders beyond their prison terms, and the Justice Department is creating a civil commitment program for federal prisoners.

Even with the enthusiasm among politicians, an examination by The New York Times of the existing programs found they have failed in a number of areas:

¶Sex offenders selected for commitment are not always the most violent; some exhibitionists are chosen, for example, while rapists are passed over. And some are past the age at which some scientists consider them most dangerous. In Wisconsin, a 102-year-old who wears a sport coat to dinner cannot participate in treatment because of memory lapses and poor hearing.

¶The treatment regimens are expensive and largely unproven, and there is no way to compel patients to participate. Many simply do not show up for sessions on their lawyers' advice — treatment often requires them to recount crimes, even those not known to law enforcement — and spend their time instead gardening, watching television or playing video games.

¶The cost of the programs is virtually unchecked and growing, with states spending nearly $450 million on them this year. The annual price of housing a committed sex offender averages more than $100,000, compared with about $26,000 a year for keeping someone in prison, because of the higher costs for programs, treatment and supervised freedoms.

¶Unlike prisons and other institutions, civil commitment centers receive little standard, independent oversight or monitoring; sex among offenders is sometimes rampant, and, in at least one facility, sex has been reported between offenders and staff members.

¶Successful treatment is often not a factor in determining the relatively few offenders who are released; in Iowa, of the nine men let go unconditionally, none had completed treatment or earned the center's recommendation for release.

¶Few states have figured out what to do when they do have graduates ready for supervised release. In California, the state made 269 attempts to find a home for one released pedophile. In Milwaukee, the authorities started searching in 2003 for a neighborhood for a 77-year-old offender, but have yet to find one.

Supporters of the laws offer no apologies for their shortcomings, insisting that the money is well spent. Born out of the anguish that followed a handful of high-profile sex crimes in the 1980s, the laws are proven and potent vote-getters that have withstood constitutional challenges.

"There has to be a process in place that prevents someone from rejoining society if they're still dangerous," said Jeffrey Klein, a Democratic member of the New York State Senate who has pushed for civil confinement there.

Martin Andrews, 47, of Woodbridge, Va., who was abducted, buried in a box and repeatedly sexually assaulted for a week when he was 13, also supports the laws.

"If they can't control themselves," Mr. Andrews said, "we need to do it for them."

But the myriad problems have concerned some advocates for victims of sexual abuse, who suggest the money is being wasted and that other options for dealing with dangerous sex offenders — such as giving them longer prison terms, preventing sentencing deals with prosecutors and mandating treatment during incarceration — would be more effective.

"Civil commitment is a huge, huge assignment of resources," said Anne Liske, the former executive director of the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault, a victims' advocacy group. "This wholesale warehousing — without using the proper assessment tools and with throwing treatment in when they are not people who can be treated — has already proven not to be working, so why would we do it more?"

A Series of Convictions
Leroy Hendricks was a likely candidate for commitment as he prepared to leave a Kansas prison in 1994.

Mr. Hendricks's most recent crime, for which he had been convicted a decade earlier, had been "indecent liberties" with two 13-year-old boys in an electronics shop where he worked. All told, his convictions left a painful trail reaching back to 1955: exposing himself to young girls; molesting 7- and 8-year-old boys at a carnival where he was the ride foreman; molesting a 7-year-old girl; playing strip poker with a 14-year-old girl; preying on his own family members, including a boy with cerebral palsy.

Like Mr. Hendricks was, thousands of soon-to-be-released prisoners are screened for commitment each year by state corrections departments, prosecutors and panels. The process varies widely from state to state, as do standards for the evaluators, but in most states, those recommended for commitment have trials before judges or juries.

Mr. Hendricks may have sealed his own fate when he testified in 1994 that he could not "control the urge" to molest when he got "stressed out." He said his mother, Violet, had wanted a girl when he was born and had dressed him as one when he was growing up.

"I sure don't want to hurt anybody again," he told the court, but then conceded that he could not ensure the safety of children in his presence. "The only way to guarantee that is to die," he said.

More often, these cases come down to contentious duels between psychologists over how best to analyze an offender's history and likelihood of repeating crimes. In most states, commitment is for an indefinite period, but offenders are allowed to have their cases reviewed by a court periodically.

The results of the screening process are inconsistent. Some offenders are passed up for civil confinement, only to commit vicious crimes again; others' physical ailments alone make them unlikely repeat predators.

Even though Minnesota prison officials had classified Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., a convicted rapist, in a category of sex offenders most at risk to commit more crimes, Mr. Rodriguez went home when his term ended in May 2003. That November, he kidnapped and killed Dru Sjodin, a North Dakota college student who was beaten and raped.

Likewise, Jerry Buck Inman was charged with raping and strangling a college student in South Carolina last June, nine months after his release from a Florida prison after serving 17 years for rape and other crimes. The authorities in Florida looked at his records but decided not to seek commitment.

Meanwhile, some prosecutors seek commitment for others convicted of noncontact crimes like public exposure. In Florida, prosecutors tried unsuccessfully to civilly commit a man who was imprisoned for driving drunk even though his last sex arrest was decades earlier.

"The population that is being detained is a very, very mixed group," said Richard Wollert, a psychologist in Portland, Ore., who evaluates civilly committed offenders. "There are cases that are appalling in terms of being kept in custody at the taxpayers' expense when there are probably alternative placements for them."

Predicting who is likely to commit future sex crimes has become more of a science over the last decade, but many still find the methods questionable.

Actuarial formulas — akin to the tables used for life insurance — play a central role in deciding who is dangerous enough to be committed. They calculate someone's risk of offending again by looking at factors such as the number of prior sex offenses and the sex of the victims. Men with male victims are graded as higher risk, for example, because statistics show they are more often repeat offenders.

"The danger is that these numbers will blind people," said Eric Janus, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul who has challenged Minnesota's civil commitment law in court.

Politics and emotion also factor heavily into who gets committed, with decisions made by elected judges or juries who may be more affected by the raw facts of someone's offense history or the public spectacle over their crimes than the dry science of risk prediction.

"It's so emotional for them," said Stephen Watson, an assistant public defender who represented an offender in Florida. "They don't even want to hear the research."

New Laws Follow Publicized Cases
Earlier in the 20th century, many states had sexual psychopath laws that allowed them to hospitalize offenders deemed too sick for prison. But by the 1980s most such laws had been repealed or fallen into disuse.

But a handful of horrific and highly publicized cases in the 1980s and '90s spurred lawmakers to act again. Washington State adopted the first civil commitment law in 1990 after men with predatory histories killed a young woman in Seattle and sexually mutilated a boy in Tacoma.

After state courts upheld Washington's law, Kansas, Minnesota and Wisconsin passed versions in 1994, followed by California in 1996.

Then, in a 5-to-4 decision in 1997, the United States Supreme Court found civil commitment to be constitutional in Kansas v. Hendricks, the same Mr. Hendricks still confined in Kansas.

In the ruling, the justices found that a "mental abnormality" like pedophilia was enough to meet a standard to qualify someone for commitment, not the different standard of "mental illness" that had been traditionally used. The court also rejected the notion that civil commitment amounted to double jeopardy (a second criminal punishment for a single crime) or an ex post facto law (a new punishment for a past crime), noting that Kansas's statute was not meant to punish committed men but, like other acceptable civil commitment statutes, intended "both to incapacitate and to treat" them therapeutically.

"We have never held that the Constitution prevents a state from civilly detaining those for whom no treatment is available, but who nevertheless pose a danger to others," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority, later adding, "By furnishing such treatment, the Kansas Legislature has indicated that treatment, if possible, is at least an ancillary goal of the act, which easily satisfies any test for determining that the act is not punitive."

Since then, state officials, civil liberties advocates and lawyers have wrestled with exactly what that treatment requirement means.

"There's no question about it," Professor Janus of William Mitchell College said, "it's a very murky area of the law."

Since the Hendricks ruling, the courts have indicated that states have "wide latitude" when it comes to treatment for the civilly confined, meaning that unsuccessful treatment alone or an untreatable patient would not be enough to undo the laws.

In 2001, the Supreme Court, in Seling v. Young, decided the case of Andre Brigham Young, a committed man in Washington State who argued that the conditions he was being held under were so punitive and the treatment so inadequate as to amount to a second criminal sentence. The court ruled against Mr. Young.

A year later, in 2002, the Supreme Court made clear the limits of who may be committed by states, saying the authorities must prove not just that an offender is still dangerous and likely to commit more crimes but also that he or she has a "serious difficulty in controlling behavior."

Some civil libertarians and prisoner advocates, who still object to the laws, have not given up on finding a challenge that the Supreme Court might view favorably. Despite the court rulings, these groups insist civil commitment amounts to a second sentence for a crime.

Even the look of commitment centers reflects the dichotomy at the core of their stated reason for being — to lock away dangerous men (only three women are civilly committed) but also to treat them.
Most of the centers tend to look and feel like prisons, with clanking double doors, guard stations, fluorescent lighting, cinder-block walls, overcrowded conditions and tall fences with razor wire around the perimeters.

Bedroom doors are often locked at night, and mail is searched by the staff for pornography or retail catalogs with pictures of women or children. Most states put their centers in isolated areas.

Washington State's is on an island three miles offshore in Puget Sound.

Yet soothing artwork hangs at some centers, and cheerful fliers announce movie nights and other activities. The residents can wander the grounds and often spend their time as they please in an effort to encourage their cooperation, including sunbathing in courtyards and sometimes even ordering pizza for delivery. The new center in California will have a 20,000-book library, badminton courts and room for music and art therapy.

Diseases like hepatitis and diabetes are common among the committed, and severe mental illness — beyond the mental "abnormalities" described by the Supreme Court — a scourge. A survey in 2002 found that 12 percent of committed sex offenders suffered from serious psychiatric problems like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Most severely mentally ill men cannot participate in sex offender treatment and receive few services besides medication. Verwayne Alexander, a self-described paranoid schizophrenic who has been detained at the Florida Civil Commitment Center since 2003, has sliced himself so many times with razor blades that a guard often watches him around the clock, lawyers said. Mr. Alexander has sought unsuccessfully to be moved to a psychiatric hospital.

Those who choose to participate in sex offender treatment spend an average of less than 10 hours a week doing so, but the hours differ vastly from state to state. The structure of therapy, too, varies widely, a reflection, perhaps, of the central question still looming in the field: Can treatment ever really work for these offenders?

Admitting to previous crimes is a crucial piece of a broad band of treatment, known as relapse prevention, that is used in at least 15 states and has been the most widely accepted model for about 20 years.

Some of the institutions, too, devote time to other therapies and activities that seem to have little bearing on sexual offending. In Pennsylvania, young residents take classes to improve their health and social habits called "Athlete's Foot," "Lactose Intolerance," "Male Pattern Baldness," "Flatulence" and "Proper Table Manners."

In California, they can join a Brazilian drum ensemble or classes like "Anger Management Through Art Therapy" and "Interpersonal Skills Through Mural Making."

But many of those committed get no treatment at all for sex offending, mainly by their own choice. In California, three-quarters of civilly committed sex offenders do not attend therapy. Many say their lawyers tell them to avoid it because admission of past misdeeds during therapy could make getting out impossible, or worse, lead to new criminal charges.

For those who decline treatment — sometimes including hundreds of "detainees" awaiting commitment trials — boredom, resentment and hostility to those in treatment lead to trouble. Some sneak in drugs, alcohol and cellphones, sometimes with the help of staff members, or beat up other residents, sometimes coercing them into having sex.

"There's rampant sexuality going on in there," said Natalie Novick Brown, a psychologist who has evaluated 250 men at Florida's center.

The people who run civil commitment centers say that a constant, nagging question hangs over them: How to keep order while not treating argumentative, sometimes violent offenders like prisoners? The low-level staff members are not prison guards and tend to be poorly educated, trained and paid. Their job titles — in Illinois, security therapy aide — reflect the awkward balance they must achieve between security and therapy.

Because civil commitment centers are neither prisons nor traditional mental health programs, no specialized oversight body exists. None has been created, in part because its base of financial support, the 19 civil commitment programs around the country, would be too small, several experts who study the programs said. But the need, they said, is urgent.

"They ought to be reviewed by an independent entity with the highest possible standards," said Dr. Fred Berlin, founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic in Baltimore.

Few Signs of Progress
Around the country, relatively few committed sex offenders finish treatment and are released.

"Every year I go to his hearing, and every year there's no progress in his case," said Armand R. Cingolani III, a lawyer with a client in Pennsylvania who was committed in 2004 after being adjudicated as a juvenile for sexual assault on two different minors. "It doesn't seem that anyone gets better."

Nearly 3,000 sex offenders have been committed since the first law passed in 1990. In 18 of the 19 states, about 50 have been released completely from commitment because clinicians or state-appointed evaluators deemed them ready. Some 115 other people have been sent home because of legal technicalities, court rulings, terminal illness or old age.

In discharging offenders, Arizona, the remaining state, has been the exception. That state has fully discharged 81 people; there, the facility's director said records were not available to indicate the reason for those discharges.

An additional 189 people have been released with supervision or conditions (excluding Texas, where there is no commitment center and those committed are treated only as outpatients). And an additional 68 (including 58 in Arizona) are in a higher, "transitional" phase of the program, but still technically committed and often living on state land.

The backlogs have led to an aging population. Inside many facilities, wheelchairs, walkers, high blood pressure and senility are increasingly expensive concerns. Florida's center filled 229 prescriptions for arthritis medication one recent month, and 300 for blood pressure and other heart problems.

More than 400 of the men in civil commitment are 60 or older, and a number of studies indicate a significant drop in the recidivism rate for this group, many of whom have health problems after years in prison. David Thornton, treatment director of Wisconsin's center and an expert on recidivism rates, said the decline was increasingly well-documented.

The growth of the committed population has become a political quagmire. No legislator wants to insist on the release of sex offenders, but few are able to swallow the mounting costs of civil commitment. The costs of aging and sick offenders, such as Mr. Hendricks in Kansas, are especially high in part because of their special needs and physical ailments.

From 2001 to 2005, the price of civil commitment in Kansas leapt to nearly $6.9 million from $1.2 million, a state audit there found. "Unless Kansas is willing to accept a higher level of risk and release more sexual predators from the program," the audit said, "few options exist to curb the growth of the program."

But as more states consider granting some offenders supervised release, the cost is turning out to be nearly as prohibitive.

For $1.7 million, Washington converted a warehouse in Seattle into a home for men on conditional release. It has 26 cameras monitoring residents, a dozen workers, a surveillance booth overseeing the living area and a 1,700-pound magnetic door.

Two men live there so far.

With the logjams and frustrations mounting, many states have lengthened prison sentences for sex offenders. Virginia last year increased the minimum sentence for certain sexual acts against children to 25 years, from 10, though it also sharply expanded the number of crimes that qualify an offender for civil commitment.

Ida Ballasiotes, whose daughter's rape and murder in 1988 helped spur the first civil commitment law, in Washington State, said that no sexual predator should walk free and that longer prison sentences should "absolutely" be considered.

"I don't believe they can be treated, period," Ms. Ballasiotes said.

After Release, Objections
Even for those sex offenders considered safe enough to be released, going home is no simple process. Kansas authorities decided two years ago that Mr. Hendricks, who was the first person that state committed under its law and who after a decade had progressed to one of the highest phases of treatment, should be moved from Larned State Hospital to a group home in a community where he would be watched around the clock.

Mr. Hendricks would not be allowed onto the home's porch or patio without an escort, according to court documents. Besides, his medical problems, including poor hearing and eyesight, meant he could not walk down the 40-yard gravel driveway outside the house without falling, the documents said.

But as with many men with his history, the community balked. In California, so many towns object to men leaving civil commitment that some of those released have to live in trailers outside prisons.
"You can't just sneak them in," said John Rodriguez, a recently retired deputy director in the California Department of Mental Health. "You've got hearings, the court announces it, it's all over the press."

In Mr. Hendricks's case, residents of Lawrence, where he was initially to be moved, collected petitions. "You can tell me that he's old, but as long as he can move his hands and his arms, he can hurt another child," said Missi Pfeifer, 37, a mother of three who led the petition drive with her two sisters and mother.

Then officials in Leavenworth County, picked as an alternative, said the choice violated county zoning laws. Mr. Hendricks lasted two days there, in a house off a road not far from a pasture of horses, before a judge ordered him removed.

State officials said they had no choice but to move Mr. Hendricks back to a facility on the grounds of a different state hospital, where he still is.

Through a spokeswoman for the state Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, Mr. Hendricks declined to speak to The New York Times.

Two years ago, he told The Lawrence Journal-World that he would be living in a group home "if somebody hadn't opened their damn mouth," adding, "I'm stuck here till something happens, and I don't know when that will be."

Next: Inside the troubled center for sex offenders in Florida.

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