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Sex offender treatment programs are under scrutiny

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Monday, Sep. 16, 2013, at 9:16 p.m.

After Robert L. Watkins tried to rape a 6-year-old Johnson County girl, the criminal justice system sent him to prison for five years.

But after he did his time, he didn’t go free. Instead, a judge ordered him into the Kansas Sexual Predator Treatment Program, where, nine years later, he remains with no guarantee that he will ever be released.

In the program’s nearly 20-year history, it has been more likely that a resident will leave in a hearse than walk out to rejoin society. So far, only three have earned their freedom; 22 have died.

What’s happening in Kansas is unfolding in Missouri and 18 other states that have similar civil commitment laws aimed at protecting the public while giving program residents a chance to change their lurid behavior.

Nationwide studies estimate that more than 5,000 sex offenders are confined in such programs at an annual cost of more than $500 million — much more expensive than prison, sometimes three times as much.

“It is not sustainable,” said Maia Christopher, executive director of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.

There also is a growing concern that programs are drifting away from their original goal of treatment into a legally gray area that could bump up against the U.S. Constitution.

Program at Larned

Kansas’ program has faced increased scrutiny at home lately, too.

Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration created a task force late last year to look at ways of improving the program. The panel’s recommendations are expected to be released later this month.

More than 200 sexual offenders are confined in the program at Larned State Hospital in central Kansas. It costs the state about $75,000 a year to hold each one — about two and a half times the cost to incarcerate them in a state prison.

The population is growing by about 18 admissions each year, and the costs are escalating proportionately. The state is fast running out of space to house the men.

The program will cost taxpayers about $17 million this fiscal year, about 14 times more than in 2001. The cost is likely to balloon with the population projected to more than double within 20 years.

The program puts lawmakers in a pinch: How much money should be devoted to such a small but risky population that seems to gain little against pressing needs such as education, social services and highways?

It leaves some lawmakers like Rep. Marvin Kleeb, R-Overland Park, thinking that more needs to be done to toughen criminal sentencing.

“If they’re still a threat to society, maybe we shouldn’t have this totally separate sexual predator rehabilitation and treatment program,” Kleeb said. “They need to be part of the regular prison population.”

State officials said their emphasis is on protecting the public from a population where more than three-quarters of the residents are pedophiles.

Although officials want people to leave the program, they say treating sexual offenders is a long, arduous process that doesn’t guarantee results.

“I can guarantee you the treatment is occurring,” said Jerry Rea, superintendent at Parsons State Hospital and a co-chairman of the state task force. “It is one of the most difficult behaviors in the field of mental health to treat.”

Prosecutors think the expense is vital to protect the public from the most heinous sexual offenders.

“I’d bet a lot of money if you took members of the public and told them what those individuals did … the public would be willing to pay to keep the community safe,” said Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe.

A national issue

The sexual predator issues aren’t confined to Kansas. Consider:

• A federal court battle is brewing over Minnesota’s sexual treatment program. Only one of about 700 people confined there since the program started in 1995 has been released. A lawsuit alleges that the residents are not given adequate treatment to get out. Last year, a judge ordered the state to reform the program, but lawmakers didn’t act. A court hearing is set for November.

• In Missouri, only four people have been conditionally released from a program started in 1999. Ten have died in confinement. The program costs taxpayers $24 million a year, or $125,000 a person.

The idea of civilly confining ex-offenders was controversial from the beginning, with critics saying it was unconstitutional to put people away after they already had served prison sentences for their crimes. They contended that mental health professionals would be reluctant to ever OK offenders for release.

But proponents argued that the programs employed the same type of legal mechanism used to involuntarily commit mentally ill people for treatment. They said it was a way to protect the public from the “worst of the worst” sex offenders.

The first legal challenge to the program’s constitutionality came through a case brought by Leroy Hendricks, who had a 40-year history of molesting children and was the first man committed under the Kansas law.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the state in 1997. However, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who voted with the majority, warned that if treatment was a “sham or mere pretext,” then the law could not pass constitutional muster.

“If the civil system is used simply to impose punishment after the state makes an improvident plea bargain on the criminal side, then it is not performing its proper function,” Kennedy wrote.

Kennedy also foresaw that few people would be released once committed.

“Notwithstanding its civil attributes, the practical effect of the Kansas law may be to impose confinement for life,” the justice said.

With so few people getting out, questions persist about whether the treatment programs have in effect become very pricey prisons instead.

“They are not working the way the courts were promised they would work,” said Eric Janus, an expert on civil commitments and dean of the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn.

“They were promised to be real civil commitment programs, but they’re not. If they’re not really civil commitment, then they’re really punishment, and that’s unconstitutional because these guys were already punished.”

At stake in Kansas

Kansas officials think their program is constitutionally sound. They said that it takes years to treat a sexual offender, assuming those offenders are willingly participating in the program.

The Kansas law targets people diagnosed with a mental abnormality or personality disorder that predisposes them to commit sex crimes. The law affords them the right to a jury trial and provides them yearly reviews to determine whether their condition has changed to an extent that they are no longer at risk to re-offend.

Residents can be discharged from detention if they complete a seven-step program, after which they are conditionally released under court supervision for at least five years. More than half the people in the program have completed up to three treatment steps. Seven are in the final two phases.

“We have to have good treatment, which we do have,” said Kimberly Lynch, a lawyer for the Department for Aging and Disability Services, which oversees the program.

“It is a motivational issue,” she said. “People have to want to go to treatment and actively participate in it.”

Jerry P. Inman, 64, a former Olathe resident, was the first man released from the Kansas predator program in 2002. He was committed to the program in 1996 after serving about two years in prison for taking indecent liberties with a child.

Inman compared the program to college, but with no clear goal of what needed to be done to get out of the program.

“They don’t have anything set up that you can reach,” said Inman, who now lives in Missouri. “You feel like there’s no end.”

Reach Brad Cooper at 816-234-7724 or bcooper@kcstar.com.

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