Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Washington State’s Federal Oversight of Sexually Violent Predators Ended

Washington State's Federal Oversight of Sexually Violent Predators Ended

by John E. Dannenberg

After thirteen years of oversight, the U.S. District Court (W.D. Wash.) dissolved its injunction that had taken over control of Washington State's sexually violent predator (SVP) treatment program. District Judge Ricardo Martinez stated in his March 13, 2007 order that Washington State had finally complied in principle with the predators' constitutional rights.

In 1990, Washington State became the first state in the nation to enact civil commitment procedures to detain SVPs after they had served their criminal terms. The purpose was allegedly to "treat" these prisoners in a mental health setting, so as to engender their safe release to society. Richard Turay, one of the first to be committed to the "Special Commitment Center" (SCC), filed suit in 1990 in an unsuccessful challenge to the SVP commitment concept. However, District Judge William Dyer ruled in 1994 that SCC was in reality only another prison, and ordered Washington State to refashion it into the mental health facility it should have been. The court's injunction required hiring and training competent therapists, implementing a treatment program that included the SVPs" families, developing individual treatment programs for each SVP and supervising the program with experts in the treatment of SVPs.

In 1998, the court held an evidentiary hearing to review progress, which it found wholly lacking. In November 1999, it declared the non-compliant defendants in contempt. Millions of dollars in fines and a new building later, Turay's suit continued because of the non-availability of a path out of SCC. That is, if it were a mental health program, it should have workable parameters defined for its successful completion. Washington's Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) worked begrudgingly towards compliance, which included two halfway houses in the Seattle region.

In 2006, Turay's attorneys complained that DSHS was backsliding. But the court, reviewing the 13 years of progress, found that while complaints could yet be leveled, the program was generally functionally compliant with the court-ordered changes and that "at some point, court oversight must end."

The record is, however, yet worrisome. When the court's injunction issued in 1994, SCC had only 28 residents. Today, at an annual cost of $45 million ($169,173 per offender), it has 266 housed in a new prison like facility on McNeil Island in the middle of Puget Sound, with six living in the community. And while constitutional conditions of "confinement" and treatment have been addressed, the blunt result is that not one SVP has ever been released.

One could rationally look at this as admitting either that DSHS' mental health treatment program is a total failure, or that politics has turned any SVP offense in the state of Washington into a life-without-parole sentence, regardless of the criminal judgment entered.

But however one tries to characterize the SCC, McNeil Island is just another Devil's Island, where society's "undesirables" are unceremoniously banished for perpetuity. The sad part of the recent dissolution order is that while the court recognized the Fourteenth Amendment right to a mental health program that had an exit strategy for the SVPs, it left the ultimate decision to DSHS as to whether any SVP would ever achieve true liberty. Mindful of the hopelessness attaching to the current status of the SCC, the court observed that nothing would prevent plaintiff SVPs "from filing new allegations under new case numbers."

While the court dissolved the injunction and "closed the case," it did nothing that would set a due process standard for so much as one SVP to ever be released. See: Turay v. Richards, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Wash.), Case No. 91-0664 RSM. The unpublished order is available on PLN?s website.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Turay v. Richards

The ruling is available in the brief bank.