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Finding a place for sex offenders

September 1, 2006
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Policy makers and advocates differ on where offenders should go when their sentences are up

American society is getting tough on sex offenders. Governments are adopting residency restrictions that essentially shut convicted offenders out of entire cities. National TV personalities have launched a concerted effort to rid communities of “predators.” Several states are considering joining the 16 with civil commitment statutes (figure) that allow them to keep sex offenders in state custody—usually in secure facilities operated by state mental health or human services agencies—after they have completed sentences for their crimes.

Figure. States with civil commitment laws for adult sex offenders. Source: Washington State Institute for Public Policy
But it is not just lawmakers and everyday citizens who are concerned. In several states, a chorus of offender treatment professionals, victim services providers, mental health advocates, and in some cases even law enforcement and corrections professionals believes that the policy discussion's tone is furthering misconceptions about who sex offenders are and whether they ultimately can be housed safely in the community. And they say the misinformation that's out there actually can serve to make communities less safe, by diverting attention from a hidden majority of offenders.

“We need the public and policy makers to understand that offenders are not all the same,” says Anne Liske, executive director of the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault. New York legislators this year discussed but did not adopt a potentially broad and expensive measure for civil commitment of sex offenders upon sentence completion. Liske terms such a strategy as “a solution that addresses a small portion of the population with a huge allocation of resources.”

Indeed, the term “sex offender” applies to a broad range of individuals in most states, and the parameters vary from state to state. In Ohio, for example, the crimes that fall under the umbrella of sex offenses encompass four separate categories in the law. While these categories of crime include violent offenses such as rape and the sexual assault of a child, they also include illegal use of a minor for sexual activity, menacing/stalking activity that is conducted with a sexual motivation, and crimes such as kidnapping if it is committed with a sexual motivation.

While the public and media's attention is transfixed on the stranger who invades a community, the more typical profile of a sex offender is the relative, family friend, or other meaningful person in a victim's life, many advocates say. Yet they say strategies such as civil commitment tend to consider all offenders as having the characteristics of the habitual child predator, ignoring data showing that most sex offenders are less likely to commit repeat offenses than other categories of felons.

These advocates are careful not to minimize the dangers that the “worst of the worst” offenders pose, and acknowledge that for these individuals a treatment-focused, community-based approach is virtually certain to fail. But many say that when they try to highlight the progress that can be made through treatment for the vast majority of offenders, they too feel under siege.

“People who say that something can be done end up getting attacked,” says David D’Amora, who runs the Center for the Treatment of Problem Sexual Behavior in Connecticut. “As treatment professionals, we end up becoming suspect, so we find that we need to connect with victim services, police, and other groups to get the message out.”

D'Amora's outpatient treatment agency originally was established by Connecticut corrections officials who realized they needed a better system for assessing the risk posed by sex offenders as they transitioned from prison to the community. The center conducts assessments that help corrections officials determine proper community services for released offenders, with the services overseen by specially trained probation officers.

Dividing the Ranks

The management and treatment of sex offenders undoubtedly stir the emotions as a policy issue. Sometimes it even causes divisions within the mental health community.

This occurred last year in a situation that had never before been seen in Rhode Island. Todd McElroy was a 39-year-old diagnosed with schizophrenia who had been committed to a psychiatric facility during his teens and later received a 17-year prison sentence for two sexual assaults in the community. He was about to finish his sentence and be released. Following media reports of the impending release, the state Department of Corrections filed a court petition to keep McElroy, who generally has been considered resistant to treatment, in state custody. It was the first time the state's corrections system had initiated a civil commitment process on an inmate about to be released.

Rhode Island does not have a civil commitment law for adult sex offenders, however. While the matter proceeded to the state courts, the case caused a bitter debate among state mental health leaders. The outspoken head of the state's mental health advocate office, H. Reed Cosper, found himself in the unusual position of arguing that a client remain in state custody because of the danger to the community. Brandon Krupp, MD, chief of psychiatric services for the state hospital system, argued that McElroy did not need hospitalization and that the initiation of the commitment petition amounted to politics overriding medicine.

Dr. Krupp resigned from state service over the matter; he did not answer requests for an interview from Behavioral Healthcare for this story.