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Civilly Committing Sex Offenders Strains Some States’ Budgets

by Matt Clarke

The twenty states that have civil commitment programs will spend close to a half-billion dollars in 2010 to incarcerate and provide treatment for some 5,200 civilly-committed sex offenders. The per-offender cost for civil commitment is much higher than the cost of incarcerating people in prison, and has risen considerably since civil commitment programs were first enacted.

The annual cost per civilly-committed sex offender (CCSO) is highest in New York ($175,000) and California ($173,000). Nationwide, such costs average $96,000 – double the cost of tuition to an Ivy League university. Iowa spends $7 million a year for 80 CCSOs, nearly double the 2005 budget of $3.6 million. Virginia expects to spend $24 million in 2010 to house 239 CCSOs at the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation, up from $2.7 million in 2004. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell wants to spend an additional $43.5 million to convert a closed prison into another civil commitment facility.

Minnesota spends $71.6 million on CCSOs annually, five times the per-person cost of incarcerating state prisoners. The reason for the higher expense is the treatment regimen for CCSOs, which involves behavioral therapists, social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists necessary to keep a constitutional civil commitment treatment program from becoming an unconstitutional extension of incarceration after sex offenders have served their prison sentences.

To provide secure treatment for CCSOs, Minnesota constructed a 400-bed civil commitment facility in Moose Lake that looks a lot like a medium-security prison. The Minnesota legislature recently approved about $45 million to expand Moose Lake, despite a $1 billion state budget deficit.

“They had no idea 10 years ago, seven years ago, what this program was going to cost,” observed Dennis Brenson, warden of the Moose Lake facility.

“I’ve heard people in a lot of the states quietly say, ‘Oh my God, I wish we’d never gotten this law,’” said Professor W. Lawrence Fitch of the University of Maryland School of Law, an expert on civil commitment. “No one would ever dare offer repeal because it’s just untenable.”

Actually, no one would try to repeal civil commitment statutes because U.S. lawmakers lack the moral courage to do what is right if it is also unpopular or politically harmful.
“No one wants to be – certainly here in [the state legislature] – perceived to be soft on sex offenders,” acknowledged Minnesota state Rep. Michael Paymar.

In the case of civilly committing sex offenders, there is increasing evidence that psychological treatment has little, if any, real effect in reducing recidivism. Untreated sex offenders have about a 5% rate of committing subsequent sex crimes. According to Fitch, research indicates that psychological treatment reduces that risk by less than 20%. In other words, at most it could reduce the chances of a sex offender committing a new sex offense from 5% to around 4%. Fitch points out that states without civil commitment laws tend to focus on controlling sex offenders’ behavior using management tools such as intensive supervision, counseling, GPS tracking and lie detector tests.

The cost for housing CCSOs has increased due to two primary reasons: the cost of treatment has risen sharply over the past five years, and many civil commitment facilities rarely or never release a CCSO. No one has been released from the civil commitment programs in Minnesota or Texas (which uses an out-patient program). Only one sex offender was released from the programs in Missouri and Pennsylvania, while as of mid-2009 only two CCSO’s had been released in Washington State. [See: PLN, May 2009, p.38]. Only 10 sex offenders have been released from Virginia’s civil commitment center within the past 7 years. Since 2006, Nebraska released only one civilly committed sex offender.

Other programs have released more CCSOs. California released close to 200, and New Jersey, home of Megan’s Law, has released 123 civilly committed sex offenders. Wisconsin has released 61 since it began its civil commitment program in 1994.

“Are Minnesota sex offenders that much more dangerous than Wisconsin sex offenders?
Why can’t we do that?” asked civil commitment expert Eric Janus, head of the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Meanwhile, at least 62 CCSOs nationwide have died while being held in civil commitment facilities. Twenty-six have died in Minnesota alone since 1993. “It’s like a roach motel,” said Phil Duran, an attorney who has advocated for CCSOs. “People check in, but they never check out.”

Some states, including Vermont and Louisiana, refused to enact civil commitment legislation, citing concerns about cost and constitutionality. Arizona managed to slightly reduce the cost of its civil commitment program over the past five years, while Wisconsin kept the cost of its program from exploding. However, those are the exceptions. Even in states with high costs, such as California, which opened a 1,500-bed civil commitment facility in 2005, politicians are more inclined to pay the price of civil commitment even if it helps drive their state into insolvency.

“At the end of the day,” said California Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, “you have to keep them incarcerated whatever the costs.” Whatever the political costs for elected lawmakers who refuse to address the fiscal reality of civil commitment, that is.

Sources: Associated Press,

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