The Sexual Predator Treatment Program, operated by the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, is at the heart of a debate over whether civil commitment programs are truly designed to rehabilitate offenders convicted of sex crimes, or are thinly-disguised prisons intended to keep sex offenders warehoused once they have completed their sentences. Helping to fuel the debate is the skyrocketing cost of maintaining such programs, as new offenders are civilly committed but few are ever released.
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has proposed increasing funding for the state’s sexual predator program to an estimated $22 million for fiscal year 2016-17 – an increase of more than $6 million in just three years. According to the Department for Aging and Disability Services, around 250 offenders are currently in the civil commitment program and 10 to 15 more are added annually. Twenty-two offenders have spent at least 15 years in the program and over two dozen have died while in custody as of December 2014.
Critics claim such statistics are proof the state’s Sexual Predator Treatment Program is, in reality, an effective life sentence for sex offenders – most of whom they say could safely be freed with minimal risk of re-offending. For example, the four offenders who have been released from the program thus far have not committed new crimes.
The civil commitment program is housed at Larned State Hospital, located roughly 125 miles west of Wichita. The hospital itself is under scrutiny for failing to address severe understaffing problems identified in a 2013 legislative audit. According to a follow-up audit released in April 2015 and emails obtained by the Topeka Capital-Journal, staffing levels fell below even the hospital’s own standard for some units in the treatment program. The emails also described mandatory overtime required by the hospital for almost half of the 30 program employees.
The Capital-Journal also found that the staff vacancy rate among nurses and mental health technicians in the civil commitment program had actually increased about 8% since April 2013 when the initial state audit was conducted, to a vacancy rate of 38% as of mid-2015.
“Additionally, about half of the survey respondents reported that core staffing levels are only sometimes or rarely met,” the audit noted. “Further, about 35 percent of staff reported that there are rarely or never enough staff on duty during a shift to ensure safety of residents and staff. These survey results and staffing data indicate the program may not be maintaining its own minimum staffing goals on a regular basis.”
Low wages and poor working conditions combined to create the pervasive, ongoing staffing shortages at the Larned State Hospital, according to Rebecca Proctor, director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees.
“No meaningful progress has been made since the 2013 legislative post-audit report,” she said. “If anything, staffing shortages are higher today. Drops in core staffing result in massive amounts of forced overtime, impacting employee health/safety, patient safety, and the agency budget.”
Former Larned counselor Tapatha Strickler, who worked with some 90 patients during her tenure from 2012 to 2014, explained the hospital has staffing problems because few medical professionals “are willing to bet their life and their license on working there.” Strickler said she resigned because she felt the civil commitment program was unethical and believed only a handful of offenders are too dangerous to be released. Instead, she said, most are caught up in a “vicious cycle” due to organizational problems, because patients can be forced to repeat stages of treatment as punishment for uncooperative behavior or failing routine polygraph tests, prompting many to boycott the program out of frustration.
Steven Islam, 43, convicted of child molestation in 1994, was civilly committed to Larned upon his release from prison in 2003. Even though he said he believes he will not reoffend due to the treatment he received for his diagnosed schizophrenia and a drug addiction, he still expects to die at Larned.
“When I first got here, I worked the program, but when people see that no one is going anywhere, they just give up. They realize this is our situation for life,” he stated.
Larned Superintendent Tom Kinlen said if all goes well, an offender should be able to complete the seven-phase treatment program in four to five years, though he admitted that 30% to 40% of patients refuse to participate. Further, according to the April 2015 follow-up audit, the vast majority of offenders – 211 of 243 – are only in the first four phases.
From 2012 to 2014, while Strickler worked at Larned, the sexual predator treatment program consisted of one to three hours of professionally-led group therapy weekly and a 30-minute session with a psychologist once every three months. At a state budget hearing in April 2015, Secretary of Aging and Disability Services Kim Bruffet said the standard for release from the program is “virtually no risk” of reoffending. In testimony before a state House committee a month earlier, Kim Lynch, senior litigation counsel for the Department for Aging and Disability Services, defended the program as being constitutionally adequate.
“Maybe not everyone will receive a cure. It’s not an issue of whether there is a cure for things. It’s treatment and these are people receiving treatment,” she testified.
“If they’re still a threat to society, maybe we shouldn’t have this totally separate sexual predator rehabilitation and treatment program,” remarked Kansas State Rep. Marvin Kleeb. “They need to be part of the regular prison system.”
Lynch conceded that Kansas officials are closely watching a federal class-action lawsuit filed over Minnesota’s sex offender civil commitment program due to the ripple effect any judgment could have if it reaches the U.S. Supreme Court. Minnesota maintains a 700-person sex offender treatment program which began in 1985; only one person has been released since its inception, and the state failed to obey a previous court order to reform the program to provide additional treatment. [See: PLN, Feb. 2012, p.28].
A successful federal court challenge in neighboring Missouri over allegations that the state’s civil commitment center is actually a prison is also being scrutinized. Only a few people have been released from Missouri’s $24 million-per-year sex offender treatment program, while at least 10 offenders have died in custody since it began in 1999. Missouri U.S. District Court Judge Audrey G. Fleissig, in holding the state’s civil commitment process unconstitutional, wrote that it “suffers from systemic failures ... that have resulted in the continued confinement of individuals who no longer meet the criteria for commitment, in violation of the due process clause.”
The constitutionality of Kansas’ Sexual Predator Treatment Program was upheld by the nation’s highest court in 1997, though Justice Anthony Kennedy noted the program would be unconstitutional if the treatment provided to offenders was “a sham or mere pretext” to allow additional punitive confinement. Despite his misgivings, Kennedy voted with the majority. See: Kansas v. Hendricks, 521 U.S. 346 (1997) [PLN, Aug. 1997, p.1].
“They [sex offender civil commitment programs] are not working in the way the courts were promised they would work,” observed Eric Janus, dean of the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota and an expert on civil commitment. “They were promised to be real civil commitment programs, but they’re not. If they’re not really civil commitment, then they’re really punishment, and that’s unconstitutional because those guys were already punished.”
According to a January 16, 2016 article in the Kansas City Star, only four sex offenders have been released since Kansas implemented its civil commitment program in 1994, while 28 have died.
“All this is, is a concentration camp and a warehouse,” said Paul Blumenshine, 74, who was civilly committed at Larned after serving 20 years in prison for a sex offense. “The only way they get out of here is in a body bag.”
A class-action lawsuit challenging Kansas’ sex offender civil commitment program, filed in 2014, remains pending.
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Related legal case
Kansas v. Hendricks
|521 U.S. 346 (1997)
|State Supreme Court