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Created: February 6, 2006
Latest Update: February 6, 2006
This backup copy is to be used only if the original site on the Web is not accessible. It is meant to preserve the document for teaching purposes, when sometimes the URLS are changed when sites are updated, or sites are eliminated. Please be certain to give credit if you refer to this to the original URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/06/nyregion/06detain.html. Original URL, consulted: February 6, 2006.
February 6, 2006
Albany Weighs Confinement of Sex Offenders After Prison Term
By JENNIFER MEDINA
Empasis Added in by jeanne.
ALBANY, Feb. 4 — In the legal combat against sex offenders, local and state governments have done everything from using global tracking systems and banning released offenders from local parks to stopping them from working on ice cream trucks.
Now, New York is preparing to go a big step further, with lawmakers passing bills that would allow for the civil commitment of some sex offenders after they are released from prison. And in his budget, Gov. George E. Pataki included a $130 million plan to raze a prison north of Binghamton and replace it with a compound to house up to 500 sex offenders who have already served their sentences.
More than a dozen other states have enacted civil commitment laws, which have been upheld by the United States Supreme Court. Prosecutors and politicians have pressed for the measures, saying that they are the only way to protect potentially hundreds of other victims. But opponents say state officials are headed down the path of the Rockefeller drug laws, creating strict penalties that will do little to deter crime and will eventually be repealed.
"We seem be making these decisions on fear rather than on fact," said Harvey Rosenthal, the executive director of the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services. "We don't have a clear idea of what treatment works, and what doesn't. We don't know what kind of real solution this will bring. We're moving feverishly in a way that will require all kinds of revisions later."
Last year, the governor quietly began using existing mental health laws to keep sex offenders in an institution once they were released from prison. In November, a State Supreme Court justice ruled the procedure illegal, but the governor appealed the decision. The case is expected to go to the state's highest court later this year.
Over the last several months, 39 men have been placed at Manhattan Psychiatric Center, Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center on Wards Island and Central New York Forensic Psychiatric Center in Marcy, northwest of Utica. The governor's budget proposal anticipates placing nearly 200 more sex offenders in central New York and in St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center this year.
The program is expected to cost $27 million this year, with an additional $35 million allocated for renovations at the complexes.
Unlike other criminal legislation, civil confinement laws are not meant to deter or punish. But proponents of the practice say that sex offenders are likely to commit the same kinds of crimes again after their release from prison, and that keeping them in custody is the only way to assure public safety.
Eight percent of all convicted sex offenders in New York are arrested within eight years of being released, according to the state's Division of Criminal Justice Services.
"I think you begin with the fundamental question of do we allow sexually violent predators back into our community?" said Chauncey G. Parker, the governor's criminal justice adviser. "If there are reasonable steps to take, we need to take those steps. What do you do with somebody who is about to walk out of prison into a community and this person is going to molest and going to rape again?"
But in Washington State, a study by the independent research office of the Legislature showed that felony-level sex offenders had a recidivism rate of 2.7 percent — lower than the rate of repeat arrests for felony-level drug violations and several other categories of crime.
Although the number of sex crimes has remained stable within the last several years, lawmakers in New York State are under intense public pressure to approve the legislation. In recent months, several high-profile incidents — including one in which a woman was killed by a sex offender in the parking lot of a White Plains mall — have prompted renewed calls for strict penalties.
The New York State District Attorneys Association endorsed the Senate's civil confinement proposal last year. Jeanine F. Pirro, the former Westchester district attorney who is now running for attorney general, has repeatedly made pleas to create such a system.
Last month, the New York City Bar published a policy paper stating that sex offender civil commitment laws could easily be abused and that "misplaced fears" could keep sex offenders incarcerated for years after their sentence and could represent a threat to civil liberties.
Members of the Senate and the Assembly will begin to meet on Monday to debate how the state might determine who would be placed under civil confinement. Some legislators are pressing for a larger role for mental health experts, but advocates for the mentally ill have expressed wariness of how the experts would determine the criteria used to make such decisions and say the offenders would wrongly be grouped with the mentally ill.
In 2002, the United States Supreme Court refined its earlier ruling, deciding that people who were "unable to control their dangerousness" and were likely to commit another sex crime could be civilly committed.
Mental health advocates and experts say that only 6 percent of sex offenders have a diagnosed mental illness, and are more akin to an alcoholic or someone suffering from a compulsive disorder. Mental health advocates say they are also worried that civil confinement programs paid through the state's Office of Mental Health may soon divert money from mental health patients.
"Equating sex offenders with mental illness in the public eye puts us back many, many years," said Michael Seereiter, the public policy director for the Mental Health Association of New York State. "For all the money that they might put out for housing sex offenders, it is the same funds that we can use on treatment and preventative services."
Dale M. Volker, a Republican from Western New York who is sponsoring the civil confinement bill in the Senate, said the state should focus on creating a system that would keep some sex offenders confined, but also provide intensive treatment.
"If they can't be treated and they are dangerous, you have got to come to grips with the fact they should be put away," he said. "We have to deal with the issue that maybe we can't do anything with these people."
Copyright 2006The New York Times Company