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California: Few Sex Predators Civilly Committed To Mental Hospitals, Despite Expanded Qualification Criteria

by John E. Dannenberg

Even though California widely expanded the potential pool of violent sex predator (SVP) prisoners who could be forced into mental hospitals after completing their criminal sentences, and despite spending $27 million to screen and evaluate thousands of newly eligible candidates, the state hasn’t committed any of them in the first year.

Not surprisingly, part of the problem is the bureaucracy, which has caused a backlog. Each commitment must go through a court trial, per California’s Welfare and Institutions Code §§ 6600 et seq. While prosecutors are busily filing the cases, it often takes a year to get to trial. Another factor is that despite the new (2006) law vastly enlarging the pool of po-tential candidates, few of those coming due for release meet the definition of an SVP. Stated another way, while many more sex offenders are included in the expanded class requiring screening and evaluation - 35 listed crimes versus 7, earlier - none who were not previously identified have yet been fingered. Whereas the earlier criteria looked only at those who had multiple crimes against multiple victims, the new law requires just one crime. However, psychologists note that some disorders can only be diagnosed from the event of recurring behavior over a six month interval. Plainly, “one crime does not a predator make.”

Nonetheless, referrals from prison officials have skyrocketed from 45 per month to 750, causing the number of psy-chological screening examinations to jump from 240 in the prior year to almost 2,500. While many more are being identi-fied and held in the state mental hospital in Coalinga to await commitment trials, the number of actual new commitments from all categories rose only to 27, from 24 the year before.

Holding each pre-trial detainee costs $12,500 per month. In addition, the examination by two psychologists runs an-other $7,500. Douglas Tucker, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, said “It’s silly, actually,” adding, “It’s good employment for psychologists, but it doesn’t really achieve anything. You’re going to get a lot of people who don’t have a sexual disorder, who just got drunk.” While prosecutors in Contra Costa and Alameda counties have filed six cases in the intervening year that would not have previously qualified, no commitments have yet been obtained.

The event of an SVP commitment is cataclysmic. Of 582 who have been committed since the SVP law was enacted in 1996, fewer than 12 have completed the five-step mental treatment program and been released. Over 100, on the other hand, have thumbed their noses at the program and taken their chances on biennial recommitment trials and won their freedom. 231 more are awaiting trials. Politically motivated legislators, whose fanning of the flames against SVPs electri-fies reelection campaigns, have tried to make SVP commitments indeterminate. Incredibly, this would take the invocation of a life sentence away from the judicial branch of government and place it in the hands of the executive branch, to be consummated by two staff psychologists in one “hearing” wherein the prisoner has no attorney or due process rights.

It appears that even after California’s legislators frenetically expanded the qualification criteria for SVPs, they still have not corralled enough to fill more than 20 % of their new Coalinga treatment facility or to satiate their politi-cal obsessions.

Source: Contra Costa Times.

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