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Thousands Referred but Very Few Qualify for Commitment as Sexually Violent Predators in California

Responding to a legislative request, California’s Bureau of State Audits reviewed the process used by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to refer sex offenders to the Department of Mental Health (DMH) and, in turn, the process used by DMH to determine whether those offenders qualify for civil commitment as sexually violent predators (SVPs). The result, a July 2011 report, found that although DMH evaluates thousands of sex offenders each year, only a tiny percentage are civilly committed as SVPs.

The audit report determined, moreover, that the process used by the CDCR to identify potential SVPs is inefficient and results in DMH being overloaded with unnecessary work.

In 1996, the California legislature enacted the Sex Offender Commitment Program to target a narrow subpopulation of sex offenders – those it believed posed a continuing threat to public safety due to mental disorders that predisposed them to engage in sexually violent criminal behavior. To qualify for civil commitment as an SVP, an offender must have been convicted of a qualifying sex crime and diagnosed with a mental disorder that renders him (or her) likely to engage in sexually violent behavior in the future if not retained in custody and given appropriate treatment.

In 2006, the passage of Jessica’s Law, in addition to imposing strict residency restrictions on sex offenders, added more crimes to the list of sexually violent offenses that qualify an offender for SVP designation. Also under Jessica’s Law, the length of an SVP commitment term, which was formerly two years, has now become indeterminate; an annual evaluation, however, allows for periodic assessment of an SVP’s eligibility for release.

As of May 2011 there were 521 male SVPs and one female SVP committed to California state hospitals; another eight had been granted conditional release and were being treated and supervised by DMH in the community.

The audit report found that CDCR refers all offenders convicted of specified sexual offenses to DMH without considering (as the law requires) whether an offender committed a predatory act or is otherwise likely to be an SVP. Additionally, 45% of the CDCR referrals involved offenders that DMH had previously concluded were not SVPs, despite the fact that the re-referrals had not committed new offenses suggesting that their non-SVP status should be reconsidered. The result, in the auditor’s view, was a significant, unnecessary increase in DMH’s workload.

Responding to the implicit criticism that CDCR referred more sex offenders to DMH for SVP evaluation than the law intended, CDCR Undersecretary for Operations Scott Kernan said the department would “always err on the side of caution in regards to public safety when making sex offender referrals” to DMH.

The audit further found that, while the number of SVP referrals DMH received dramatically increased from 1,850 in 2006 to 8,871 in 2007, the first full year that Jessica’s Law was in effect, and then declined somewhat to 6,675 in 2009, DMH recommended about the same number of cases for SVP commitment proceedings in 2009 (50) as it did in 2005, before Jessica’s Law was enacted. Additionally, the report found that since 2005 the number of sex offenders committed as SVPs had declined, both as a percentage of all referrals (dipping below 1% in every year since 2007) and as a percentage of DMH’s commitment recommendations (averaging just 20% between 2005 and 2010).

The audit report also determined that while 59% of the 13,512 offenders who had been referred for SVP evaluation between 2005 and 2010 but did not meet SVP criteria later violated the conditions of their parole, only 133 were convicted of a new felony, and, of those, only one was convicted of a sexually violent offense.

“Although higher numbers of offenders were subsequently convicted of felonies that were not sexually violent offenses, even those numbers were relatively low,” the report concluded.

Sources: California State Auditor, Sex Offender Commitment Program, Report 2010-116 (July 2011); Los Angeles Times

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