"Advocates": Imprison sex offenders; keep psychiatric services

ALBANY - Mental-health advocates are asking that officials look first at trimming the state's expensive sex-offender treatment program to help during New York's fiscal crisis rather than reducing services for people with mental illness.

State law provides that sex offenders who have completed their prison or parole terms but are considered too dangerous to live in society be placed in psychiatric institutions and receive treatment. Advocates for people with psychiatric disabilities have argued that the sex offenders should be housed in prisons or with intensive supervision in the community.

"We've always maintained that it was bad public policy, that it was costly and that it was an inappropriate setting," said Glenn Liebman, CEO of the Mental Health Association of New York State.

Now, as the state's financial problems become more acute and additional cuts for mental-health care more likely, groups like the Mental Health Association want the governor and lawmakers to take a second look at how much is spent on sex offenders. There are fewer than 200 sex offenders housed in psychiatric hospitals as part of the state's $50-million-a-year sex-offender program when people whose cases are still being adjudicated are subtracted, Liebman said. That means the real cost is about $400,000 per person, with a large price tag for treatment and security staff, he said.

"If they were in a correctional setting, absolutely you wouldn't need such staffing," Liebman said.

He noted that the need for mental-health services goes up when the economy is poor.

The sex-offender program costs $48 million a year, and the annual cost per bed is $225,000, said Jeffrey Gordon, a spokesman for Gov. David Paterson's Division of Budget.

The Budget Division will look at the recommendation, Gordon said. The governor is scheduled to present his 2009-10 budget proposal Dec. 16, and the administration is not commenting or speculating on what it will include, Gordon said.

"Of course we're going to be looking at the cost of reducing the program along with every other program the state administers," he said.

The number of sex offenders in mental-health facilities was 177 as of Nov. 13, with many of those in the middle of the civil commitment process, said Jill Daniels, a state Office of Mental Health spokeswoman. Of the 177, 122 were in Central New York Psychiatric Center in Marcy, Oneida County, and 44 were in St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center in Ogdensburg, St. Lawrence County. The rest were at Manhattan Psychiatric Center, she said. Most trials are in New York City, so some stay at Manhattan Psychiatric during those times.

State spending to treat sex offenders will only grow over time since many people placed in civil confinement are there for the long term, said Harvey Rosenthal, head of the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services. It would cost the same amount of money to build a new psychiatric center every few years, he said.

"We understand that this is a time when we're looking to make economies, and accordingly we think reconfiguring how we house and treat the sex-offender group would be a way to make economies that both protects the public but doesn't unravel the mental-health system," he said.

When the state passed civil-confinement legislation for sex offenders in 2007, there was an agreement that paying for it would not take money away from mental-health services, Rosenthal said. Advocates believe that has started happening "and is on schedule to do that at an alarming rate," he said.

A number of sex offenders in the mental-health system predate the state's civil-confinement law. New York began civil commitment for sex offenders three years ago under then-Gov. George Pataki. The state's highest court found that the Pataki administration had improperly used mental-hygiene law to confine the offenders after the end of their prison terms.

Sex offenders likely don't need hospital-level care in many instances, Rosenthal said, but an intensive "community incarceration" kind of program with mandated supervision, anklets and other conditions. That kind of treatment would be cheaper and would prevent the loss of mental-health funds for people with psychiatric disabilities, he said.

Services for children and adults that are known collectively as a mental-health safety net received two rounds of cuts this year. One was 2 percent, which was included in the budget lawmakers passed in April. The second, in the summer, was a 6 percent across-the-board reduction to areas like day centers, case management, peer-support and other programs that are critical to helping people stay safe and in treatment and out of hospitals, prisons and homeless centers, Rosenthal said. The combined financial impact was an estimated $40 million to $50 million, he said. [Ed: Unmentioned in this discussion amongst "advocates" is that the policy of further imprisoning those who have fully completed their sentences is fundamentally wrong and, despite S.C.O.T.U.S. majority opinion, manifestly unconstitutional!]

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