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June 23, 2010

Fascinating review of the costs and challenges of sex offender civil commitment

The AP has produced this recent and effective article, headlined "Sexual predator treatment squeezes state budgets," noting the struggles many states are now having with their sex offender civil commitment laws.  The piece highlights why I do not worry too much about excessive use of state civil commitment of sex offenders: it is likely too expensive for states that have to balance budgets to devote a lot of resources toward keeping a lot of offenders civilly committed.  Here are snippets of the lengthy article:

Keeping sex offenders locked up in treatment after they finish their prison sentences emerged as a popular get-tough tactic in the 1990s, when states were flush with cash. But the costs have soared far beyond what anyone envisioned.

An Associated Press analysis found that the 20 states with so-called "civil commitment" programs will spend nearly $500 million this year alone to confine and treat 5,200 offenders still considered too dangerous to put back on the streets.

The annual costs per offender topped out at $175,000 in New York and $173,000 in California, and averaged $96,000 a year, about double what it would cost to send them to an Ivy League university. In some states, like Minnesota, sex offender treatment costs more than five times more than keeping offenders in prison. And those estimates do not include the considerable legal expenses necessary to commit someone.

The programs have created a political quandary for lawmakers who desperately need to cut spending in the midst of a recession but don't want to be seen as soft on rapists and child molesters. "I've heard people in a lot of the states quietly say, 'Oh, my God, I wish we'd never gotten this law,'" said W. Lawrence Fitch, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. "No one would ever dare offer repeal because it's just untenable."...

The heavy financial burden of treating confined sex offenders has left lawmakers with less money as they make agonizing cuts to areas like education and health care. Politicians who spent years cracking down on sex crimes now struggle to pay for their tougher laws. "It's easy to say, 'Lock everybody up and throw away the key,'" said state Rep. Michael Paymar, a St. Paul Democrat who heads a public safety budget panel. "But it's just not practical."

The laws have withstood legal challenges all the way to the Supreme Court. They are considered constitutional as long as their purpose is treatment, not detention. But living up to that standard can cost far more than traditional prison. And the costs persist for years because most inmates will never be released.

The programs have given rise to new and bigger treatment centers: California opened a 1,500-bed facility for sexual predators in 2005. Minnesota opened a 400-bed building last year and plans another expansion at Moose Lake, 110 miles north of the Twin Cities....

The confinement is costly mainly because of the need to hire behavioral therapists, social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists. For every 25 to 50 offenders, there is a five- to six-member treatment team. Parts of the facility resemble a community college campus, with chairs arranged around the edges of rooms for group therapy sessions. There is a separate unit for about 8 percent of the sex offenders who refuse to participate in treatment, and another one for aging clients, some of whom use wheelchairs and walkers....

Minnesota already spends $65 million a year to house and treat sex offenders. State lawmakers usually don't complain about the costs, but they balked when Gov. Tim Pawlenty asked to borrow $90 million to complete the expansion of the Moose Lake facility. They eventually gave him slightly more than half that amount, despite a growing deficit of $1 billion.

"We have to cut something else to pay for it," said Sen. Linda Berglin, a Minneapolis Democrat who supervises the budget for civil-commitment cases as head of a health and welfare spending panel. In most states, the number of confined sex offenders has steadily increased, requiring ever-greater spending.

Iowa spends nearly $7 million to confine 80 offenders, almost double 2005's $3.6 million budget for 48 patients. Virginia's program has swelled from 45 patients five years ago to more than 200 this year, with annual costs climbing from $10 million to almost $16 million.

Some states have steered clear of the civil-commitment system, partly because of financial reasons. In Louisiana, legislation died last year after top lawmakers questioned the cost and constitutional issues. Vermont legislators rejected a similar proposal....

Not all civil commitment programs are financially strained. The cost of Arizona's system actually dropped slightly in the last five years. In Wisconsin, the Sand Ridge center has expanded gradually without any outcry about the money involved.

Wisconsin has released 61 sex offenders since adopting a civil-commitment system in 1994. But in Minnesota, no one has ever gotten out. One man was released provisionally but got pulled back for a technical violation and later died in confinement. "Are Minnesota sex offenders that much more dangerous than Wisconsin sex offenders? Why can't we do that?" asked Eric Janus, an expert on civil commitment who heads William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.

Missouri and Pennsylvania have released one patient each. Nebraska has released just one person since 2006. Texas has yet to release anyone from its outpatient program. That compares with states like California, which has put nearly 200 offenders back into the community, and New Jersey, where 123 have been let go.

June 23, 2010 at 03:06 PM | Permalink


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The states have nobody to blame except for themselves here. They've made law after law to make it a sexual offense to do anything from urinate in a back alley, to kidnapping and rape.

They've done their best to scare folks into voting for them in the name of protecting children and have made it so growing portion of offenders will be indefinitely held.

I will say that there are some truly sick and evil people out there who would require closer watch. There should be a set of criteria though to try and help a person be eventually (and hopefully) rehabilitated and out of the system.

Posted by: Questions Authority | Jun 23, 2010 4:43:19 PM

Doug, I'm glad you liked this article. I personally thought it was kind of stupid. Yes, the sex offender classifications are overly broad. But the article didn't focus on that -- it decried the high cost of civil commitment. Inpatient mental health care is expensive. We should focus more on making treatment better, not worrying that it costs too much to help sick people. We have always been reluctant to fund mental health.

Charlie Rose's "Brain" series, ep. 9, did a lot more for me than this AP piece.

Posted by: Anne | Jun 23, 2010 10:31:30 PM

123D. All problems solved.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jun 23, 2010 11:49:39 PM

works for me SC

"123D. All problems solved."

BUT should also apply to politicians. 3rd time the courts rule you f...k'd up a law and it has to be redone. YOUR DEAD.

Posted by: rodsmith3510 | Jun 24, 2010 7:16:20 PM

I find available information to be scarce or non existant, concerning the reasoning leading to civil committment after long, long prison terms have been served. If the reasoning is that every "sex offender" has an intense need for intensive psychiatric and psychological treatment, why was none of this done in his twenty some year incarceration?

Statistics seem to show that offenders who abduct a non family member, abuse, violate and/or kill, are not suffering from any condition anywhere similar to the violators of children by family members such as fathers, older brothers, men who are step-fathers, (but have served as father figures for many years.)

This latter is more a form of incest. These offenders often love the child, and they are gentle and loving with the child, although, this is still psychologically damaging to the child, and must be prevented and changed. This type of sexual offender is often a person with a strong need for psychological treatment. He is not always guilty of any violent treatment of the victim. Sometimes, sex is not even involved, but extreme affection between the offender and the child. It hurts the child, so treatment should be mandatory,(in or outpatient), and since the offender is otherwise a functioning member of society, fulfilling many aduldt obligations, he is deserving of the needed treatmentand society is better off if he receives appropriate treatment, better sooner than later.

I have not read anywhere, where this type of individual ever goes on to be a predator who goes out and abducts strange children, violates them, or cages them up, or kills them. This stranger abduction is a threat which must have as a solution the certainty that the offender will never grab another child.

The family type offender usually has psychological problems which can respond well to long term psychological treatment. (expensive, but nothing so expensive as a 25 year prison term, with no treatment, followed by a civil committment with the needed treatment coming 25 years too late, he is nearly ready for the nursing home by then.)
How is it that society has so little common sense in the management of these very different problems.

One offender seeks love and affection, inappropriately from a child he loves, and harms that child without consciously admitting what he does. The other type of offender is not motivated by love or a longing for closeness. He seems to want power, and finds it by abuducting, violating, terrorizing a child and everyone who loves that child, and often murders.

Is there any way to turn the discussion towards defining the problem more specifically? Besides the expense, which can't be sustained if used against most sex offenders, it also removes men who would respond well to outpatient (mandatory)treatment. It keeps them from contributing anything useful to society, and it ruins their lives, and often the lives of their families. (Yes, thinking people would consider what the over reaction to this type of offender would be on his children, whose lives are ruined, what will they do in twenty years?)

The media never, ever reports intelligent information about any sex offender except those who are the power hungry predator who wish to terrorize and cause pain. Those men are fairly rare, as far as percentages go. But, those are the only ones the media tells about. The problem is the vast majority are much more normal individuals, which the media never mentions,and never educates the public about. The public confuses the two types, and respondes by becoming hysterical about any report of a "sex offender" (maybe a case of statuatory rape by a 19 year old against a 14 year old who looks 17.)
The ignorant public, is tricked into thinking that all "sex offenders" on the register, or referred to by media, are the same. That is how politicians can use the ignorant public, to get their vote by passing a destructive law. I think the media has a responsibility to educate, and I think people would want to learn, and the TV ratings would still be as good, as they are when the media just sensationalizes without doing any work.

Posted by: DLJ | Jun 25, 2010 2:01:16 AM

lol how true. almost 20 years of govt records on registered offenders show 80-95% of all sex crimes are from FIRST TIME offedners. NOT the people registered who have now been tracked for over 15 years. in calif that would be 60 years or more. wonder what their records show.

but the biggest problem with fixing it is simple for 50 years or more lawyers have taken over the govt starting as lawyers then becoming judges then moving into politics. seems most lose their brains sometime during lawschool.

Posted by: rodsmith3510 | Jun 25, 2010 5:05:36 PM

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