A charged debate over sexual offenders

New York considers whether some should be confined in mental hospitals after their jail terms end.

The national debate over how best to deal with dangerous sexual predators is playing out in a highly charged political way in New York.

It centers on the issue of civil commitment, laws that allow the government to institutionalize unsafe sexual offenders in mental hospitals after they served their time in prison.

Advocates contend this is the best way to keep dangerous, repeat sexual offenders from striking again. But opponents argue that civil confinement of sexual offenders has proved to be extremely expensive and not as effective as longer sentences, intensive treatment, and post-incarceration supervision.

It is a highly emotional issue: Just what does a government do with people who clearly pose a danger? States across the country, which have been grappling with it for two decades, are still working to come up with the best solution. In the 1990s, 16 states passed civil-confinement laws for sexual offenders. Since then, most have focused instead on increasing sentences for sexual offenders and improving post-incarceration treatment and supervision.

"There's certainly been a trend in states to pay attention to how long they go to prison and, if they're going to get out, how do we supervise them effectively in the community," says Donna Lyons, criminal-justice program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. "They're really looking at the whole picture. There's really not just one solution being pursued."

The story of how civil commitments suddenly became a major issue in New York begins last June, when Concetta Russo-Carriero was walking to her car in the parking garage of a mall in White Plains, N.Y. She was stabbed to death by a homeless man who'd spent 23 years in prison on rape charges. There was outrage in the community, and Gov. George Pataki (R) made it a top priority to pass a civil-commitment law. While the state Senate passed the bill during the summer, the state Assembly so far hasn't, and instead it has focused on passing laws that increase sentences for sexual offenders.

Furious that the Democrat-controlled Assembly didn't act on the civil-commitment legislation, this fall Governor Pataki simply ordered that more than two dozen sexual offenders, who were about to be released from prison, be committed using current state laws. At the time, his staff acknowledged he was pushing "the envelope" but said it was necessary to protect society from violent sexual offenders who are likely to strike again.

The fallout has produced challenges in state court, the first round of which the governor lost. It's also produced some highly charged rhetoric.

"You can either stand with the children of New York [and pass the civil-confinement law], or you're going to coddle up to pedophiles and criminals. It's that simple," says Assemblyman Vincent Ignizzio (R) of Staten Island, chiding Democrats for preventing a vote on the bill.

Democrats were fast to strike back, calling such statements "venom" and "personal attacks."

"As a father, a grandfather, and a law-abiding citizen, I despise all who prey upon women and children, the aged and the physically challenged, the mentally ill and the poor," said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in a recent speech to The Center for New York Law. "I also know the boundaries of our legal system, and I know that you can't strengthen those boundaries with knee-jerk reactions and political game-playing."

States that have passed civil-commitment laws have found some of those boundaries. Thirteen of the states that have such laws have also passed amendments further clarifying how and when they are to be used. Most of these states have been sued.

In 1997, however, the US Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Kansas civil- confinement law, as long as treatment is provided.

Opponents say that's where the problem arises. Civil confinements are very expensive. And they point to Washington State's experience as an example. It was the first to pass a civil-confinement law in 1990, and it has been repeatedly sued. In 1994, a state court chastised officials for not providing the sexual offenders in mental institutions with proper treatment and ordered it to do so. In 1999, it held the state in contempt for failing to follow through. Last year, after the state substantially increased the amount spent on treatment, the court order was finally lifted.

Only 1 to 2 percent of sexual offenders are committed after they serve their time in Washington. Studies show that state taxpayers are spending more than $100,000 per year on each one, a total of $23 million a year. Opponents contend that money would be better spent by providing better treatment to the vast majority of sexual offenders, who may not be dangerous enough to be committed once they serve their term, but still present a threat when released into society.

"The problem is that a large amount of resources are spent on a few offenders when the money could be spent providing more and better treatment to all released sex offenders," says Robert Perry, legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Experts who treat sexual offenders say there is no silver bullet for society to protect itself against dangerous sexual offenders. What's needed, they say, is a multilayered approach that takes into account the different degrees of danger that each sexual offender presents and at the same time offers the best and most cost-effective treatment and supervision.

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