Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Washington State Keeps Sex Offenders in Prison, Bypasses Civil Commitment

A recent bureaucratic report says that a 2001 Washington State law intended to keep sex offenders in prison indefinitely has succeeded, in spite of research showing that—like other violent offenders—the likelihood of committing similar crimes significantly decreases with age.

The November 2012 report from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) found that the state's 12-year-old "Determinate-Plus" sentencing law has allowed Washington's Indeterminate Sentence Review Board (ISRB) to keep "the most dangerous sex offenders" in prison virtually forever.

Before the law's enactment, prosecutors could prevent a convicted sex offender's release to community supervision by successfully arguing that he would have "serious difficulty controlling sexually violent behavior" or that a mental disorder made him "more likely than not to engage in predatory acts of violence again if the person (was) not confined to a secure facility." The offender would then be committed to Washington's Department of Social and Health Services' Special Commitment Center (SCC), rather than being released to parole or probation.

The only ways for sex offenders to be released from SCC—which had an average daily population last year of 312—are by securing a discharge at their commitment trial or, after being committed, securing an "unconditional release" through a risk assessment.

According to WSIPP, a 2011 Canadian study found that "recidivism by sex offenders—particularly those who target adult victims—is very low after age 60... and by pedophiles at age 70." Because age is a factor in SCC risk assessments, which were developed by the same Canadian researchers, unconditional releases have reached unprecedented levels in the past two fiscal years, totaling 22. (Prior to 2005, no one had been unconditionally released from SCC.)

Because the ISRB is able to extend prison terms for sex offenders indefinitely, annual admissions to SCC have fallen from a peak of 34 in fiscal year 2005 to just 16 in FY2012. In fact, releases from SCC in FY2012­with the median age of SCC's resident population at 51—exceeded DOC admissions for the first time since Determinate-Plus sentencing was enacted.

"The downward trend in DOC admissions might suggest that SCC admissions will continue to decline to a very low level... sometime in the future," the report says. "In theory, the ISRB should be able to extend the prison terms of the most dangerous sex offenders and, thereby, reduce—or even eliminate—the need for civil commitment."

Under the Determinate-Plus law, a greater proportion of what the state calls "Community Custody Board," or CCB, sex offenders have received life sentences. Thus, according to WSIPP, "if a mature implementation of the Determinate-Plus sentencing system reduces average admissions to SCC to 13 to 14 per year"—as recent trends in unconditional releases remain stable —"the SCC population is unlikely to ever grow and will decline even more rapidly" over the next 20 years.

Of course, death also accomplishes unconditional release. Of the 401 individuals admitted to SCC through 2011, 15 had died there. The ISRB, however, is ensuring that more of them will now die in prison.

Source: "DSHS Special Commitment Center: Population Forecast, Revised," November 2012,

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login