Sexual predator law came with price

State lawmakers have shown no enthusiasm for building a proposed $42.5 million, 90-bed expansion of the state's Sexual Predator Treatment Program at Larned State Hospital. And no wonder — with a $300 million-plus hole in the next state budget, spending even a dollar more on sex offenders seems like a really bad idea.

In an election year, it also would be politically awkward to slash state funding for public schools, social services and prisons yet build nice new digs for sexual predators.

"If the money is not there to do it, then it is not there to do it," said state Rep. Bob Grant, D-Cherokee, when the House-Senate Building Committee recently heard the proposal from the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.

"If we have $42 million, it would not be in my top priority list to put it into that kind of a program," said Rep. Jerry Williams, D-Chanute, echoing experts' doubts that sexual predators can be treated effectively at all.

The problem is that the Larned program — effective or not, budget shortfall or not — is the state's responsibility and cannot be neglected indefinitely without consequences.

As it is, there have been reports in recent years of understaffing and poor conditions at the facility, and concerns that the costs of the sexual predator unit could undercut the hospital's ability to care for severely mentally ill patients elsewhere on its campus. Keeping a predator in such a program can cost four times more than keeping him in prison, and very few of those committed are ever released.

Legislators of 2010 face this costly problem because of a 1994 law inspired by the rape and murder of a Pittsburg State University student by Donald Ray Gideon, who was on parole after serving prison time for another rape.

Meant for sex offenders who have finished their prison time and been deemed a threat to society and civilly committed, the law also passed constitutional muster on a 5-4 vote in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997, back when there were nine individuals in the Larned program. When then-Attorney General Carla Stovall successfully defended the law again before the high court in 2001, the program held 70 predators.

With 189 in the program now and predictions that it will hit its 214 capacity by 2012, the program's benefits and sustainability are questionable. Lawmakers who see nothing wrong with civil commitment for the worst sex offenders need to accept that doing so comes with a price. Or if locking up predators is the priority, at least drop the "treatment" pretense and do so with longer prison sentences.