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Civil Commitment

by Carrie Roth, Prison/Community Alliance

The Special Commitment Center (SCC) is a block of prison cells in the Special Offenders Center (SOC) in Monroe, WA. Eleven men are now housed in the prison under the Civil Commitment law passed in 1990. Although the center is in a prison owned by the Department of Corrections (DOC), the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) is actually in control of the SCC.

The civil commitment law was written to indefinitely incarcerate men due to fear they may reoffend. No proof of current dangerousness needs to be brought before the jury. There need not be any current offense or even a subtle threat of reoffending. All you need to be referred for civil commitment is a sex offense in your records. You do not have to be doing time now on a sex offense. If you have ever had a sex offense on your record you are a candidate for civil commitment.

There are numerous flaws in this law. It denies the right to due process and is used to retry a man on his original crimes. The law was written so vaguely that there are no set guidelines for the courts or attorneys to follow. During the four trials to date, even the number of jurors has changed. The jury itself only has to determine one thing. All they need to determine is if this person is likely to reoffend. Likely is defined as 51% or more. The previous victims are made to 're-testify to crimes which took place as long as 29 years ago. As the prosecutor 're-rapes' these victims, the jury perceives this as recent criminal conduct.

In actuality there is no way not to be committed under this law. The jury is made to believe the person will receive treatment as a sex offender and then released. They are misled by the prosecutor and the judge. If any one from the defense brings up this is for life, it is grounds for a mistrial. The law is based on 'prediction of future dangerousness' which studies show is wrong up to 90% of the time. Reversing the prediction of future dangerousness, how can anyone prove future non-dangerousness?' This is especially difficult when the passed years of a persons life in some cases have been spent in a controlled environment such as prison. (This is not always the case, by the way. The way the law is written, they can let you out of prison and have you arrested months later without even the suspicion of reoffending. This law has given the DOC ultimate rule over a person.)

There is no proven treatment for sex offenders. But yet the civil commitment law was written under the guise of giving treatment. The backgrounds of the staff are questionable. There has been no evidence that any of the treatment staff at SCC are accredited to treat sex offenders. The SCC staff has now put in writing that the people committed also do not have the right to outside help. They are completely dependent on the help of apparently nontrained personnel who are paid by the state. Which one of these state-paid personnel would be willing to stand before a judge and say this man is now safe to be out in society? If one did testify on behalf of the person, how long would he be employed if the person did reoffend?

Being in SCC is worse than being in Intensive Management status in the prison system. You are completely stripped of your rights. There is no six months or 1 year period to endure before you get out. You are completely dependent on the SCC staff. There is no chance of earning $20.00 per month. There are no hobbies. You have one hour per week of counseling with non-trained personnel. You are stripped searched as if in prison. You cannot have visits with your children. You shave when they tell you to. You cannot have a chair in your cell. There is restricted communication between prisoners. One person was told he would not be 'cured' until he stops bringing lawsuits against the center. If you violate any of their `laws,' you get put on a program. One prisoners `program' was to sit in his cell with no lights on.

I have been following this law closely and I feel raped by the political predators who passed this law. I feel less safe because of the Band-Aid approach the 1990 legislature took to solve this problem. While they smiled and patted themselves on the back `for a job well done' they assaulted the backbone of our country. They have stripped away each of our civil rights. We may not feel the assault now, but last years legislature has allowed a serious wound to fester. They did not solve a problem, they have created a new one. The most serious problem created is the total breach of confidentiality between offenders and their therapist or counselor. Granted, real therapists are few and far between in prison, but now even the offenders who are in counseling need to be careful what they say. Now anything they say can and will be used against them to civilly commit them for an indefinite length of time. Any real openness or admissions can now be used in a referral for civil commitment. This has stopped a lot of offenders from seeking help within the system and understandably so.

The Washington State Supreme Court will hear the law Dec. 5, 1991. It is my opinion the law was written with the intention of it being ruled unconstitutional. Whether it gets overturned or not it will have accomplished what I believe it was intended to accomplish. It got Governor Gardner off the 'hotseat' and appeased a small group of victims activists. It stopped the embarrassment of tennis shoes from being delivered to the governor's door. I do not believe that while the state dumped its mentally ill and disabled people on the street back in the early '80s from state hospitals because they did not want to pay to help them, that they now want to pay $150,000.00 + per person, per year to lock up people who may never reoffend. In 1989 several news articles were written telling how money to build new prisons would have to come out of the state schools. We are now building new prisons at an estimated per capita cost of $117,000.000 per cell. While the legislature continues to take money out of schools and much needed social services, we are raising another generation of offenders. How much money will be taken away from schools, etc., before this group of self-serving legislators stop spending our tax dollars on warehousing people?

If our legislature is so willing to strip one person of their civil rights in their pursuit of the popular vote, what will they be willing to take from the rest of us?

If this law is allowed to stand, it will spread to all violent offenders. The civil commitment law is simply another form of indeterminate sentencing only much more subjective. We all know the faults of indeterminate sentencing, but what is to be seen is the costliness of the civil commitment law and how ineffectively our tax dollar will be spent if this law stands.

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