Sex offender screening program fails to show meaningful results
By John Simerman, Contra Costa Times
Article Last Updated: 01/15/2008 10:24:35 PM PST
Although the state spent $25 million more last year to screen thousands of violent sex offenders for mental illness, records show the effort resulted in none being sent to a state hospital after completing a prison term.
The screening was launched in 2006 under laws that legislators and voters passed to try to keep sexual predators behind bars after they've completed their prison sentence.
While local prosecutors say they're filing more court petitions to commit offenders to state hospitals, experts say most of the newly eligible convicts simply don't meet the expanded definition of a Sexually Violent Predator.
"We were really identifying the highest-risk sex offenders for the most part" before the law changed, said Amy Phenix, a psychologist who evaluates inmates and trains other evaluators under a contract with the state Department of Mental Health.
"I haven't noted any cases where they wouldn't have qualified before, and they do now, that I would recommend for commitment."
Proposition 83, along with state legislation, expands the list of sex crimes that qualify an inmate for commitment. An inmate can be committed for an offense against a single victim, rather than the multiple-victim requirement under previous laws.
The changes created a wave of soon-to-be-released inmates who were screened to determine if they have a diagnosed mental disorder that makes them "likely to engage in sexually violent, predatory criminal conduct without appropriate treatment and custody."
Referrals from corrections officials to the mental health agency ballooned from a monthly average of 45 to nearly 750, according to agency data. The number of SVP candidates who were given full psychological evaluations rose to nearly 2,500 from about 240 in the year before the change.
The increase has led to a nearly sixfold rise in the number of former inmates being held at Coalinga State Hospital past the end of their sentences, awaiting commitment trials, as well as delays in ordering evaluations for inmates approaching their release dates.
The state pays about $12,500 a month to house a former inmate in Coalinga, more than twice the cost of prison housing.
In the meantime, the number of commitments ticked up from 24 to 27 last year, but all 27 would have qualified under the earlier law, said agency spokeswoman Nancy Kincaid.
Psychologists say some disorders can be diagnosed only with recurring behavior over at least six months. For many inmates with a single sex offense, there is no verifiable pattern.
"It's casting a larger net to look for more of the fish you want to find," said clinical psychologist Mark Miculian, who does SVP evaluations for the state. "You are also going to capture a lot of fish you may not want."
Two psychologists are assigned to independently evaluate each inmate. If they disagree, two more are assigned. The state pays about $7,500 for each pair of evaluations, said Kincaid.
The annual cost for evaluations this year is projected at $27 million.
Supporters say the new law will prevent some of the worst violent offenders from slipping through the cracks. Critics, including some mental health experts, say it has done little more than feed a cottage industry for state-hired psychologists.
Since California's law went into effect in 1996, 582 offenders have been committed under the program. Fewer than a dozen have undergone a five-step treatment program and been released, according to the agency.
Obviously they have set the criteria too high. They could not find one sex offender who was at a high risk to reoffend? This is bologna because if they were not then they wouldn't be classified as a predator in the first place. I think the state needs to look into this.
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