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New York Governor Pataki Institutes Lawless Civil Commitment

On September 12, 2005, New York Governor George Pataki issued an executive order instructing state officials to confine sex offenders after their sentences were over. Pataki has introduced civil commitment laws in the state legislature since 1998. Typically, they have passed the Republican-controlled state Senate, but died in the Assembly, in which Democrats have the majority. Pataki, who is considering running for president in 2008, issued the order, which extends the state's existing civil commitment (of the mentally ill) law to include sex offenders despite criticisms that it may not be legal and may siphon off badly needed public mental health dollars. He admitted he is "pushing the envelope" and may have opened the state up to lawsuits, but claims it is necessary to protect the public from "monsters."

"There's a grave risk of abuse whenever a governor engages in official lawlessness because he doesn't like the law and is running for president," said Donna Lieberman, New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director, noting that the NYCLU is monitoring the policy but hasn't decided whether to file suit or not. Lieberman also criticized the complete absence of the judiciary in the Pataki commitment process, saying that Pataki had made himself both judge and legislature with the order. The five sex offenders thus far committed did not require a court order according to Pataki spokesman Kevin Quinn. Pataki takes the position that a judicial order is not required for civil commitment of sex offenders, but committed individuals may seek review of the commitment in the courts.

In the first three weeks of the policy, 32 sex offenders were given the psychiatric evaluations required by the order. Of those, five were civilly committed. All five had been convicted of crimes involving children. The other 27 were released after completing the evaluation process.

Committed sex offenders were sent to the Service for the Treatment and Abatement of Interpersonal Risk (STAIR) program at Manhattan Psychiatric Center. STAIR patients are typically treated for a year at the 1.00-bed facility. There they learn negotiation and management of emotions, among other skills.

The average annual cost for confinement of a mental health patient in New York is $195,275. This compares with $29,000 annually to incarcerate a state prisoner in New York. The state Office of Mental Health estimates that 800 to 900 sex offenders are released each year in New York. If the five-out-of-32 ratio holds, costs for Pataki's policy could easy exceed $28 million a year to confine around 140 sex offenders. It will cost more if a higher percentage is committed or any are held for more than a year. New York currently confines around 5,000 sex offenders in its state prisons.

This explains why mental health officials worry that the civil commitment program may force them to spend much of their limited funding on people who may not be mentally ill.

Quinn counters that you can't measure public safety in dollars. "We're confident we can cover the costs within the allocated funds," said Quinn.

You can't put a price on the publicity this generates for aspiring presidential candidate Pataki. He's probably willing to spend New York into bankruptcy for a boost in the polls like this issue is likely to give him.

Sources:, New York Post, iWon News

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