Thursday, April 12, 2007

Special Commitment Center

Special Commitment Center crucial – for now

The Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island – home to 266 of the state’s worst sex predators – has cleared its last legal hurdle with the lifting of federal court supervision.

That’s good news. Now let’s hope the center doesn’t break the bank.

Right now, the place is essential to public safety. It was created in response to the furor over the rape and mutilation of a 7-year-old boy in Tacoma in 1989. The perpetrator was a compulsive sex criminal whose dangerous tendencies were well known. But after he’d done the time for his previous conviction, prison officials had no choice but to release him, knowing he’d go looking for yet another victim.

You can’t just throw extra time on an offender once he has served his sentence – that’s called ex post facto punishment, and it’s unconstitutional. Hence the Special Commitment Center. The idea is to involuntarily confine the worst sexual psychopaths, after they’ve been released from prison, to treat their deviancy.

Other states borrowed the concept, and both the state and U.S. supreme courts have upheld the underlying law. But Washington’s program ran into problems – and close scrutiny from federal judges – after it was accused of not providing sufficient treatment. Without real therapy, the confinement looks a lot like punishment.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez dissolved the last remnant of the federal court supervision that was first imposed in 1994. Legally, the center is out of the woods. That’s good for the public, because its inmates will be more inclined to seek release through rehabilitation rather than lawsuits.

What’s bad for the public is the center’s staggering cost. Its 2007 budget is $45 million; divide that by 266, and it comes out to $169,000 a year per resident. It’s not cheap to provide intensive psychotherapy to this crowd, but that’s what the judge ordered.

It only costs about $27,000 to keep a convict in prison, however – and that’s the future for Washington’s sex predators. In 1996, the Legislature enacted a “two strikes, you’re out” law that can lock up sex criminals for life after their second serious offense. In 2001, it went a step further, bringing back “indeterminate sentencing” – a parole-based regime – for rapists, pedophiles and the like.

Under this system, a rapist could end up doing life in prison, regardless of his sentence, if the state’s parole board considers him likely to reoffend.

As the number of predators sentenced under the old laws dwindles, so should the demand for beds in the Special Commitment Center. Sexual psychopaths sentenced under the new laws will mostly be somewhere else: prison. That’s exactly where they belong.
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