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Civilly Committed Sex Offenders Increasingly Released in Wisconsin

Civilly Committed Sex Offenders Increasingly Released in Wisconsin

by Matt Clarke

he State of Wisconsin is releasing more violent sex offenders who were civilly committed following their prison sentences, in part, officials say, because the state’s treatment program is working and the offenders are less likely to recidivate than previously believed.

According to a Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism analysis of data from the Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center, the state’s civil commitment facility, the number of releases more than tripled from 2009 to 2013. The analysis found that 114 offenders were released during that period, up from only 31 during the previous five years.

Many of those discharged were required to wear electronic monitors but did not have to undergo further treatment. However, an increasing number of the released sex offenders were placed on “supervised release,” meaning they must participate in intensive treatment in addition to monitoring. Officials said the use of such supervision for released sex offenders will expand under legislation signed into law by Governor Scott Walker in December 2013.

“The increased number of patients on supervised release in Wisconsin does not place communities at greater risk, as long as those patients have been treated and are well-managed,” stated Lloyd Sinclair, director of court assessment and community programs at Sand Ridge.

Officials said the state had been using data from around 1980 to assess the risk that sex offenders would commit new crimes if released. Risk assessments are now based on updated information gathered on sex offenders released during the 1990s, plus a decade’s worth of follow-up data. As a result, some patients at Sand Ridge no longer qualify for continued commitment.

An August 2013 state audit report on the supervised release program predicted that the number of sexually violent offenders discharged on supervised release will reach an average of 43 in fiscal year 2015 – more than double the average of 21 during fiscal year 2010.

“The increasing number of individuals on supervised release is explained, in part, by recent research that has determined that certain types of individuals are less likely to commit additional sexual offenses than had previously been thought,” the audit stated.

Some critics have speculated that the high cost of housing violent sex offenders, compared to the lesser cost of supervised release, may be one motivation for the increasing number of discharges, but others wonder if the savings are worth the risk.

When the Wisconsin legislature first passed the Sexually Violent Persons Law that allowed civil commitment of certain sex offenders who had completed their prison terms, the additional expense was expected to be minimal. However, the annual cost of confining and treating the roughly 350 sex offenders housed at Sand Ridge has approached $50 million.

In 2001, it cost the state $87,000 per year to house and treat a sexually violent offender; by fiscal year 2014 that cost had grown to roughly $147,000 annually. The supervised release program is not as expensive, costing “only” $119,000 per offender.

“We don’t have enough information to say if this program works or if it doesn’t,” contended state Senator Kathleen Vinehout at a September 2013 hearing to review the audit of the supervised release program. “Is this a good investment of our resources?”

“This money is necessary to spend to keep these people locked up,” countered state Rep. Dean Kaufert. “It is costly and it is expensive to house them. [Sand Ridge] is a very high-risk secure facility and it’s costly to operate. But my constituents have never told me that this is money they don’t want to spend.”

Rep. Patricia Strachota, who chairs the committee examining the criteria for the discharge and supervised release of civilly committed sex offenders, agreed.

“This is a public safety issue,” she said. “I don’t think a price tag can be put on public safety as it relates to individuals who have been committed under Chapter 980 [the law that governs civil commitment of sex offenders]. I don’t think cost is a consideration when you look at whether an individual is ready to be discharged.”

Even though communities and victims often balk at the release of sex offenders, officials have acknowledged there are limits to the state’s ability to confine people not for offenses they have committed, but for crimes they might commit in the future.

“It’s a balance between cost-effectiveness and having a safe situation,” explained state Sen. Robert Cowles at the audit hearing.

“For people who are victims of any violent offense, especially sexual assault, many of them would feel best if the person who harmed them was locked up in prison forever,” said Jill Karofsky, executive director of the Wisconsin Office of Crime Victim Services.

David Thornton, the research and treatment director at Sand Ridge, noted the growing number of sex offender releases matches a national trend among the states to discharge more civilly committed sex offenders.

“This may reflect the maturing of treatment programs and the gradual discovery that under the right conditions it is possible to selectively release these individuals without exposing the community to greater danger,” he said.

A study of 67 Wisconsin sex offenders released from civil commitment from 1994 through 2010 found that within three years of their release, 18 had committed new crimes. Of those, five were convicted of sex offenses. Forty-nine of the released offenders did not recidivate. Deborah McCulloch, Sand Ridge’s director, said the rate of reoffending for new sex offenses is around 5%.

“While they are under supervision, it’s about 2 percent; after discharge, it goes up to about 5 percent,” she stated. “That’s very much less than you would expect.”

To ensure that only those who are dangerous are civilly committed, the Department of Corrections screens sex offenders being released from prison. To be confined under Chapter 980, a prisoner must have committed a sexually violent crime, be suffering from a mental disorder and be determined to be a danger to others. The courts ultimately decide whether a civilly committed offender may be released using the criteria of whether he or she is deemed more likely than not to reoffend.

Although some of the civilly committed sex offenders at Sand Ridge do not participate in treatment, others welcome the opportunity to finally gain their freedom. “Our patients do see a way out,” said McCulloch, who added that 80% of Sand Ridge’s patients participate in treatment programs. “We have an excellent treatment program and there’s hope.”




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