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Eagle editorial: Sexual predator program a deepening problem

  • Published Tuesday, Sep. 17, 2013, at 5:23 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Sep. 18, 2013, at 5:57 a.m.

Those labeled as sexual predators by the courts don’t garner sympathy, nor should they. But the Kansas Sexual Predator Treatment Program is a deepening problem for the state that deserves more ongoing scrutiny – to go along with its growing chunk of the state budget.

When the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly blessed the Kansas Sexually Violent Predator Act of 1994 as constitutional, in its 1997 decision in Kansas v. Hendricks, only nine men were being confined under the law at Larned State Hospital. Sixteen years later, the Larned facility and Osawatomie State Hospital are the involuntary homes of more than 200 offenders, at a cost to taxpayers of $75,000 each and $17 million total this fiscal year. Only three patients have ever been released, while 22 have died. Meanwhile, the population grows by about 18 admissions a year.

And some of the issues in the Supreme Court case seem no more settled today, including whether the state’s goals truly are mental health treatment and release or whether it is using the guise of treatment to permit the “lifetime preventive detention” and punishment of offenders who’ve completed their prison sentences.

The Brownback administration was wise to assign a task force last year to find ways to improve the program, which was the subject of a troubling assessment released last week by the Legislative Division of Post Audit.

Among its findings: The program consistently failed to meet minimum staffing levels (a point disputed by Aging and Disability Services Secretary Shawn Sullivan), and staff worked more than 38,000 overtime hours last year (compared with 6,700 in 2010). The program lacked controls to ensure that keys and doors were secure and to prevent and detect the possession of prohibited items. And the program will reach maximum physical capacity in 2018. “The limited staffing pool surrounding Larned State Hospital and the undesirable working conditions make it unlikely the program will be able (to) address its current and future staffing needs,” the auditors wrote, recommending the administration examine the feasibility of moving at least some of the program to a larger labor market.

It was of further concern that a patient used a contraband cellphone to commit an Internet sex crime, recently earning himself a new 10-year prison sentence. The auditors reported that program staff also had found alcohol, pornography and flash drives during room searches.

Concurring with the majority opinion in 1997, Justice Anthony Kennedy presciently warned that “the practical effect of the Kansas law may be to impose confinement for life,” because psychiatrists “may be unable to predict that no serious danger will come from release of the detainee.”

As the Brownback administration considers how to improve, adequately staff and further secure the program, lawmakers should consider whether tougher laws and longer sentences might better achieve its goal – to safeguard the public while locking up such predators for good – and in a less-costly prison setting.

Either way, Kansans are sure to end up paying the growing bill.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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