June 22, 2010

Treating sex offenders comes at a price

By MARTIGA LOHN The Associated Press

MOOSE LAKE, Minn. - Keeping sex offenders locked up in treatment after they finish their prison sentences emerged as a popular get-tough tactic in the 1990s, when states were flush with cash. But the costs have soared far beyond what anyone envisioned.

Donald DeMoss Jr
click image to enlarge

Donald DeMoss Jr., a patient at the Civil Commitment Unit for Sexual Offenders, tends to the garden on the grounds of the Cherokee Mental Health Institute in Cherokee, Iowa.

The Associated Press


TWO NEW England states – Massachusetts and New Hampshire – allow sex offenders to be indefinitely incarcerated as patients.

MASSACHUSETTS' "civil commitment" program has 226 patients enrolled and will cost $11,029,478 in 2010.

NEW HAMPSHIRE'S program has two patients enrolled; information on the cost was not available.

An Associated Press analysis found that the 20 states with so-called "civil commitment" programs will spend nearly $500 million this year alone to confine and treat 5,200 offenders still considered too dangerous to put back on the streets.

The annual costs per offender topped out at $175,000 in New York and $173,000 in California, and averaged $96,000 a year, about double what it would cost to send them to an Ivy League college. In some states, like Minnesota, sex offender treatment costs more than five times more than keeping offenders in prison. And those estimates do not include the considerable legal expenses necessary to commit someone.

The programs have created a quandary for lawmakers who desperately need to cut spending in the midst of a recession but don't want to be seen as soft on rapists and child molesters.

"I've heard people in a lot of the states quietly say, 'Oh, my God, I wish we'd never gotten this law,'" said W. Lawrence Fitch, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. "No one would ever dare offer repeal because it's just untenable."

The laws target sex offenders who are considered likely to strike again. When one of them is close to finishing a prison sentence, prosecutors file a civil case to prove that person still threatens the public and needs treatment. If the court agrees, the prisoner is committed in much the same way that someone with a serious mental illness would be sent to an institution.

The heavy financial burden of treating confined sex offenders has left lawmakers with less money as they make agonizing cuts to areas such as education and health care. Politicians who spent years cracking down on sex crimes now struggle to pay for their tougher laws.

"It's easy to say, 'Lock everybody up and throw away the key,' " said state Rep. Michael Paymar, a St. Paul Democrat who heads a public safety budget panel. "But it's just not practical."

The laws have withstood legal challenges all the way to the Supreme Court. They are considered constitutional as long as their purpose is treatment, not detention. But living up to that standard can cost far more than traditional prison. And the costs persist for years because most inmates will never be released.

The programs have given rise to new and bigger treatment centers: California opened a 1,500-bed facility for sexual predators in 2005. Minnesota opened a 400-bed building last year and plans another expansion at Moose Lake, 110 miles north of the Twin Cities.

In most states, the number of confined sex offenders has steadily increased, requiring ever-greater spending.

• Iowa spends nearly $7 million to confine 80 offenders, almost double 2005's $3.6 million budget for 48 patients.

• Virginia's program has swelled from 45 patients five years ago to more than 200 this year, with annual costs climbing from $10 million to almost $16 million.

Some states have steered clear of the civil-commitment system, partly because of financial reasons. In Louisiana, legislation died last year after top lawmakers questioned the cost and constitutional issues. Vermont legislators rejected a similar proposal.

There is also the continuing debate about whether psychological treatment of sex offenders has any real effect on making predators less threatening.

Fitch, the Maryland expert, said research suggests that treatment lowers their risk of committing more sex crimes only slightly, something less than 20 percent. He said states without civil commitment for sex offenders tend to focus on controlling behavior more than psychology. Colorado, for example, manages them through intensive supervision, lie-detector tests, tracking devices and counseling.

(Continued on page 2)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)