Modern-Day Gulag In the Golden State
Back in 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that the practice known as civil commitment was legal. This meant that 20 states—which had passed laws permitting the ongoing incarceration of sex offenders—could continue to keep the men confined even after they completed their prison terms. (See “Sex Crimes and Criminal Justice,” from the May 2018 issue of The Washington Spectator, available here.)
All it took (and still takes) is for two psychologists to claim the men might commit a new crime and a judge to say their cases can move forward. They are then labeled sexually violent predators (SVPs) and reincarcerated in prisonlike facilities until new trials are held—supposedly to determine if they will be civilly committed or released. The result? Some men have been waiting for their day in court for 15 to 20 years. In the meantime, many have died.
No matter that the men already served their prison time. Or that psychologists, psychiatrists and lawyers I interviewed insist that very few should be confined—that instead, the vast majority, many of whom are elderly or ill, should be let out.
Eric Janus, former president and dean of Mitchell Hamline Law School in St. Paul, Minn., says that continuing to incarcerate the men to comfort fearful constituents doesn’t make the public safer. The bottom line? “I’ve never seen numbers that show there are fewer sex offenses or re-offenses in the 20 states that have the SVP laws than in the other 30 states that don’t,” Janus says.
Then why are an estimated 6,500 men still stashed away across the country? Locking up sex offenders is always good politics, but it is also extraordinarily profitable. And since California has the biggest budget and locks up the biggest number—three times the next three states’ combined—the Golden State offers the biggest boondoggle to explore.
To document a system awash in double-talk and dollars, I interviewed 45 lawyers, psychologists, psychiatric technicians, rehabilitation therapists, nurses, journalists, prison reform advocates and civilly committed men over eight months. Nearly all feared retaliation and asked not to be named.
A golden opportunity
When the sex offender laws passed, some California mental health officials instantly grasped that the new measures were solid gold. Melvin Hunter, then director of Atascadero State Hospital, where the SVPs were sent, was elated. “Whoever came up with the term ‘sexually violent predator’ was a marketing genius.”
In their wildest dreams, California officials couldn’t have guessed just how golden. From 1996 to 2006, when the SVPs were sent to Atascadero, taxpayers coughed up $716 million to house and supposedly treat them. In 2006, the state opened Coalinga State Hospital, which cost a third of a billion dollars to build and even more than that to outfit. Over the next 13 years, the SVP tab swelled by at least another $2.1 billion. But who’s counting? Locking up sex offenders and throwing away the keys plays well with voters.
Across the country, the scene is the same. In Kansas, the cumulative 25-year tab is now $255 million to confine roughly 350 SVPs. In New York, it cost taxpayers $117 million in 2017 alone for 359 SVPs; and in Washington State, nearly $49 million in 2018 for 211 men.
Copyright syndication of this full story can be read here: https://washingtonspectator.org/koeppel-gulags/
Modern-Day Gulag In the Golden State
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