Treatment for rapists, molesters under fire. Cost, legality and effectiveness at issue in extended program

Treatment for rapists, molesters under fire. Cost, legality and effectiveness at issue in extended program
Jim Doyle, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2004

California, in a program whose effectiveness is being questioned, spends more than $75 million a year to lock up hundreds of child molesters and rapists in a maximum-security hospital here after their prison terms have ended.

The cost -- about $400 a day per person -- pays for housing, health care, administrative and court-related costs of 535 ex-convicts who are incarcerated at Atascadero State Hospital in the Sexually Violent Predator Program. The price tag is about five times the daily cost of keeping an inmate in state prison. In a federal court in Los Angeles, a class-action lawsuit is attacking California's implementation of the predator law on the grounds, among other things, that it illegally extends the offenders' incarceration.

Because of court backlogs and extensive litigation surrounding individual cases, about 70 men have been hospitalized at Atascadero for three years or longer without being given a trial before a judge or jury to test whether their extended incarceration was valid. Three men have been held there for eight years without trial.

The population of convicted sex offenders in California is huge: More than 17,000 are in state prisons, and more than 67,000 have served their time and live in communities outside prison walls. But California is one of few states whose prisons offer no significant sex offender treatment programs.

California's handling of its sexually violent predators is facing a challenge by a major Los Angeles law firm, Latham & Watkins, which argues in its lawsuit that sex offenders' constitutional rights are being violated in part by subjecting them to conditions that are often worse than state prison.
Franklin Zimring, a criminal law professor at the UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall, said the issues involved in the incarceration of sexually violent offenders are central to how the society defines itself.

"The true measure of the quality of the justice system is how those who are most detested are treated," said Zimring, adding that the system's failure to provide offenders with a prompt trial "seems to me to be a scandal. But it's the kind of scandal that has very few political costs. No one is going to be successful running for office in this state about the rights of sex offenders."

California focuses on only "a tiny point of the pyramid of sex offenders at an enormous cost," said Eric Janus, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn., and a national expert on sexual predator laws. "We delude ourselves if we think we are locking up all the recidivists. ... (We're) going to miss most of the people who are going to commit more sex crimes."

Attorneys for sex offenders say the predator law was an act of political vengeance against those imprisoned before California's "get-tough" sentencing laws of the mid-1990s. "The intent is to lock these guys up. It's pure and simple," said Sacramento attorney Michael Aye, who has represented sex offenders in the predator program.

Aye insists that many offenders committed their sex crimes decades ago and pose little risk of re-offending. Other defense attorneys say many child molesters committed acts such as touching a child rather than violently attacking them.

"A lot of these guys have been (incarcerated) for 10 to 20 years, and they have changed," Aye said. "The rapists were driven by social and biological factors that are no longer in existence." Aye argues that, at much less cost, the state should provide community supervision and outpatient treatment programs for them.

Ted Donaldson, a psychologist in Morro Bay (San Luis Obispo County) who often testifies for the defense in sexual predator cases, said the program "has more politics and more bad psychology than any other program we've ever had. Most of the people being committed don't have a sexual mental disorder" as required under the law.

Marita Mayer, a Contra Costa County deputy public defender, compares the predator law to the 2002 film "Minority Report," in which people were imprisoned for future crimes envisioned by women with a gift for prophecy.

"I don't think anybody can predict the future. It's all kind of voodoo to me," Mayer said. "It's a pre-emptive strike against the sex offenders: to lock up these people before they do it again. We have lowered the standard so much that we are locking up people who probably won't recommit because a few of them might."

Definition: A sexually violent predator is defined by law as "a person who has been convicted of a sexually violent offense against two or more victims and who has a diagnosed mental disorder that makes the person a danger to the health and safety of others in that it is likely that he or she will engage in sexually violent criminal behavior." The law defines "substantial sexual conduct" with a child younger than 14 as a violent crime. full story

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