Washington State Sex-Offender Policy Criticized Washington's state Supreme Court has ruled that it's permissible to confine sex offenders even after they've served their sentences, as long as they receive mental health treatment that could lead to their release. A federal court had been monitoring the state's sex crime confinement program since the 1990s, when allegations arose that it was used to keep sex offenders off the streets indefinitely.
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Washington State Sex-Offender Policy Criticized

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Washington State Sex-Offender Policy Criticized

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Washington State Sex-Offender Policy Criticized

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Seattle.

MARTIN KASTE: Washington state puts it's committed sex offenders on an island in Puget Sound. You take a ferry run by the Department of Corrections.

(SOUNDBITE OF FERRY)

KASTE: Operations manager Kelly Cunningham gives the tour.

KELLY CUNNINGHAM: When you look at this, you're looking at - I mean, almost a college campus-type setting with the common area, dormitory-style living. Just the whole setting itself is much softer than a prison.

KASTE: The SCC was built this way because the federal court said that if you're going to put someone away on psychological grounds, you can't do it in a prison. The courts also said that the treatment should lead to something. On paper, at least, these residents have the possibility of getting better and getting out. But does Cunningham think that's a realistic possibility?

CUNNINGHAM: That's a tough question. I think that we do have individuals living here that at some point in time could be unconditionally released.

KASTE: You see that happening practically, as a practical matter?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, again, it's a political matter. It's a highly charged political matter. So, I would like to believe that someday that could happen.

KASTE: Yeah, right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KASTE: Dennis Hersaw(ph) was sent here after he served 11 years in prison for raping a woman at knifepoint in 1989. It was his third rape conviction. Here at the SCC, he's been a willing participant in therapy. But he says he had no illusions about the treatment ever leading to release.

DENNIS HERSAW: This is just nothing more than a state saying, look, we have a concern about the safety of our community. And we're not happy with these people getting out, so let's devise some other way to continue to keep them locked up.

KASTE: Many outside psychiatrists worry that that's exactly what's happening in the states that have these civil commitment programs. Fred Berlin is an expert in sexual disorders at Johns Hopkins.

FRED BERLIN: I would not want to see psychiatry or mental health misused as a way of permanently locking people up under the rules of providing them with treatment.

KASTE: Berlin doesn't like how some states use insurance company-style actuarial tables to predict whether a person will reoffend, and locking him up accordingly. He's also bothered by how few offenders are ever released.

BERLIN: If this is really treatment, then perhaps not all, but at least some significant number of people should be able to graduate from the programs, by which, I mean, reenter the community as safe and productive citizens.

KASTE: Henry Richards is Superintendent of the SCC. As a psychologist, he says he also used to have qualms about the system. But not anymore, not since he got to know the residents and their crimes.

HENRY RICHARDS: Why is sexual offending so - a bigger threat to society than physical violence? It undermines our basic value system. And I think more powerfully than any other crime, it points to our animal nature.

KASTE: Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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