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Unique Texas Sexual Predator Civil Commitment Has Successes/Failures

by Matthew T. Clarke

Texas has a unique form of civil commitment for sexual predators which allows outpatient treatment and requires most of the civilly committed to live at a halfway house. A committed man's recent escape from a Dallas halfway house brought the Texas model into question.

Seventeen states have laws that allow for civil commitment of sexual predators after they complete their prison sentences. Sixteen of them lock up the committed people with little or no treatment. Texas took another route.

The concept of civil commitment of sexual predators originated in Washington State in 1990. As of December, 2004, 3,493 people had been civilly committed as sexual predators nationwide. 66 of them came from Texas. 427 civilly committed sexual predators (CCSPs) have been released from civil commitment nationwide. None of them were from Texas. 30 of the Texas CCSPs have been returned to prison for violations of the strict civil commitment rules. Violation of civil commitment rules is a third-degree felony in Texas. No Texas CCSP has committed a sex offense after being civilly committed.

Texas began its civil commitment program in 2001. It provides sex offender therapy for CCSPs and requires that they be closely monitored. The monitoring includes tracking devices worn on the ankle and, for all but two of the CCSPs, living at a halfway house like the Wayback House, which is located just west of downtown Dallas.

Restrictions at the Wayback House are strict and conditions harsh. The men sleep seven to a room in an old converted hotel in an industrial part of Dallas. They are not allowed to leave the halfway house without permission and are required to take drug screenings, sex offender treatment, lie detector tests and sexual arousal tests in which a device is attached to their penises while they are shown photos or videos of simulated sex offenses. Simple liberties such as working, drinking a beer, riding a bus or watching cable TV are typically forbidden. They may not even be allowed to visit or receive visits from friends and relatives, even if the potential visitor is sick and/or elderly. They may be prosecuted as violating civil commitment--a third-degree felony--for violations such as writing a state prisoner without authorization or leaving an angry phone message.

Early on May 2, 2006, CCSP Mark Petersimes cut off his ankle monitor and left the Wayback House. He was last spotted hitching a ride before dawn. He was the third CCSP to escape. Jose Morales, the first CCSP to leave, is still at large after three years. The second escapee was caught soon after he fled the halfway house.

Petersimes had been sentenced to 2 years in prison for a 1981 North Carolina attempted sexual assault and 12 years in prison for molesting his girlfriend's 5- and 7- year-old daughters in Texas in 1991. In 2003; he walked away from an Austin halfway house to which he had been civilly committed. He received a 28-month prison sentence for that escape and was civilly committed to the Wayback house upon his release from that sentence.

Petersimes's departure prompted criticism of the Texas model of treating
CCSPs on an out-patient basis rather than locking them up in prison-like facilities as the other sixteen states do. Supporters of the Texas model point out that it is cost effective and safe. Texas spends about a half million dollars a year on CCSPs, Florida spends $22.6 million a year for its CCSPs; California spends $45.5 million a year.

The Texas program is safe, said executive director of the Texas Council on Sex Offender Treatment (TCSOT). Other states now think we have taken a rational approach in dealing with sexually violent predators. TCSOT administers the Texas program.

A second criticism is that not enough of the 44,000 Texas registered sex offenders have been civilly committed. Florida also began its civil commitment program in 2001, but has committed over 450 people whom it imprisons at about ten times the per-committed person cost as Texas.
However, Huntsville attorney David ONeil, who has represented five CCSPs praises the civil commitment rate saying it shows that Texas is really only committing the worst group of offenders which is exactly what the civil commitment statute was intended to do. ONeil is critical of violations of civil commitment restrictions being prosecuted as a felonies.

The idea that when someone violates conditions that theyre subject to a third-degree felony is beyond the pale, ONeil said. The conditions are so onerous ... I dont believe most of us would be able to comply.

The Texas state prosecutors who handle civil commitments in Texas say they would commit more people were additional funding available. Thus far, over 400 sex offenders have been flagged for civil commitment upon discharging their sentence. Some of the 66 CCSPs accepted civil commitment without a trial. Of those who took it to a jury trial, all but one have been civilly committed.

Source: Dallas Morning News.

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