Misconduct at Washington State Civil Commitment Center as Concern Grows Over Releases
by David M. Reutter
Washington state’s Special Commitment Center (SCC), which was created to house and treat prisoners classified as violent sexual predators, has become the focus of investigations into staff misconduct. Additionally, the growing number of releases from the facility has worried local residents because many of the freed sex offenders are settling in nearby communities.
SCC, located on remote McNeil Island, once housed state prisoners but was taken over by the Washington Department of Social and Health Services after the Department of Corrections ended operations on the island in 2010. [See: PLN, Sept. 2011, p.42]. The facility, which is designed to treat offenders’ mental conditions that cause violent sexual behavior, is also linked to a neighboring halfway house and another halfway house in Seattle.
Sex offenders held at SCC have finished their prison sentences but remain in “civil detention” under a state program that civilly commits offenders who meet the legal definition of violent sexual predator. That decision is made by a jury, in part based on the likelihood that the offender will commit more crimes if released.
SCC has 371 employees. According to an investigation by The Seattle Times, the facility has been plagued by absenteeism, staff misconduct and flawed employment screening. [See: PLN, May 2011, p.34]. In 2012, for example, eight employees were fired, four were suspended and another 26 received letters of reprimand.
Despite the sexually violent nature of the offenders housed at SCC, employees’ access to Internet pornography was a major component of staff misconduct. During 2012, the facility disciplined 16 employees for viewing Internet porn while on the job, including two who were subsequently fired.
One of the terminated workers, Sammie Neely, used his work computer to visit “103 unauthorized and non-work related sites ... during February and March 2012.” He appealed his firing and was later allowed to resign.
The second worker who was terminated, SCC supervisor Jamele Anderson, was rehired based on his claim that by leaving his password under his telephone, other employees were able to access his computer system. The investigation determined more than 100 pornographic images had been viewed on his computer.
A more significant issue involved payroll fraud. Former SCC Superintendent Kelly Cunningham found the facility was paying $150,000 per month in overtime, including payments of $32,000 to two employees for work they never performed.
“They got paid for work they didn’t do – that’s theft of public resources,” Cunningham said. “There may be a systematic, focused attempt by some employees to defraud the state.”
An internal report obtained by The Seattle Times found that more than one-fifth of SCC employees had inconsistencies in their attendance records, and were often paid for hours when they were not at the facility or had left work early. In some cases, a supervisor’s name was forged on overtime slips.
“There were instances where we’d have a supervisor and subordinate in cahoots,” Cunningham said. He believed some employees collaborated with each other to call in sick so another staff member could work overtime, then they would switch roles and do it again.
Two employees were fired for defrauding the sick leave system. Stanislaus Zon fabricated at least four doctor’s notes after missing dozens of days of work. “Zon indicated he got the idea of altering the medical clearance document from a co-worker,” records indicated. “Zon said if he knew he would keep his job, he may come forward with the name of the employee.” The scheme failed and Zon was fired on August 23, 2012. A second employee, Kyle Boylan, also was fired for submitting fraudulent doctor’s notes.
Other staff misconduct involved falsified credentials. For example, Thomas Lovell was promoted to Psychology Associate after claiming he had a Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Arizona State University and a Master’s in social work from Kaplan University. SCC never checked the credentials and allowed Lovell – who had only a high school diploma – to treat the state’s worst sex offenders.
The investigation also determined that nearly $12 million, a quarter of SCC’s budget, is spent on legal bills. “It’s a morass,” said prosecutor David Hackett. “We’ve left the door to the candy store wide open.”
Defense psychologist Theodore Donaldson, who was fired in 1996 by the California Department of Mental Health for “problems with clinical diagnosis, report writing skills, risk assessments, and clinical conclusions,” according to his former supervisor, was paid millions for defense work in civil commitment trials. He agreed that experts have taken advantage of the state’s civil commitment system.
“Two cottage industries have resulted from this law: the experts that can sprinkle their holy water, and the tools to measure risk assessments,” Donaldson said.
Medical expenses constitute another high cost at SCC. In April 2014, Washington lawmakers included in the supplementary state budget a provision that would require the Department of Social and Health Services to examine ways to reduce healthcare costs at the facility. One option is to use Medicaid to cover prisoners’ medical expenses.
“If there is some way to shift the cost to the feds, I think that could be a good idea,” said state Senator Jim Hargrove.
More recently, according to an August 2014 news report, residents in south Tacoma have expressed concerns about the number of sex offenders released from SCC who are settling in the nearby community. According to the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, more than 50 released offenders live within a one-mile radius of the county’s Sawyer Park.
“It worries me a lot because I have little sisters, and they like to take off just by themselves,” said local resident Traveante Bell. “It just makes me want to move out of the community. It makes me not feel comfortable anymore.”
“Pierce County is receiving more than our fair share,” maintained county prosecutor Mark Lindquist. “There are services available in Pierce County and that makes it easy to dump [a] disproportionate number of offenders here.”
Washington state law requires the Department of Corrections to release prisoners in the county where they were convicted, but sex offenders freed from SCC are technically not covered by the statute because they are released from civil detention, not from prison. Once they get out, many choose to live in the local area.
According to the Tacoma News Tribune, of the 41 offenders who have been released from SCC since 2012, 15 were released in Pierce County even though only three had lived there previously.
“I’m working with legislators on a fix so the offenders are released more evenly around the state,” said Lindquist.
Releases from SCC have increased sharply in recent years, and in 2012, for the first time, the number of offenders freed from the facility exceeded the number admitted. Experts say four factors may be behind that trend.
First, research has found very low rates of recidivism by rapists older than 60 and child molesters older than 70, according to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. The average age of offenders released from SCC is 58.
After age 60, “even the high-risk individuals show a rather dramatic decline” in recidivism, said Brian Judd, an Olympia psychologist who has testified in more than 100 civil commitment cases. But “that doesn’t mean that someone over the age of 60 is not going to reoffend,” he noted – only that the likelihood decreases.
SCC officials say the second reason behind the more frequent releases is that a greater number of offenders have successfully transitioned from the facility into halfway houses or supervised home placement, which speeds up the process.
Third, the number of civil commitments to SCC has steadily declined due to tougher sentencing laws passed by the Washington legislature; as a result, violent sexual predators who previously might have been eligible for civil commitment are now kept in prison instead.
Finally, defense lawyers might be getting better at arguing that their clients can be safely released. Ken Chang, lead attorney at The Defender Association of Seattle, said defense lawyers previously attacked the science used to civilly commit sex offenders. Now, he stated, attorneys “explain to the jurors that they’re not monsters; this is the reason why this particular individual ended up being who he was – and in many cases what that individual has done to change that.”
“I think that’s a better story,” Chang added. “I think the jurors like it much better.”
Sources: The Seattle Times, www.theolympian.com, http://q13fox.com
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