Questions mount as Virginia’s sexual predator population grows

By Amanda Iacone
Virginia Statehouse News

RICHMOND — Lawmakers have several unanswered questions as a team of legislative staffers begins working on a study of the state’s ballooning violent sexual predator program.

Members of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission on Monday received updates on a series of studies looking at ways to curb the program’s growth.

The violent sexual predator program is expected to house 300 convicted sex offenders in state-run treatment facility in Nottoway County by this summer. A judge civilly commits offenders to the program committed following psychological assessments and a series of legal reviews. The commitments come after the offenders complete their prison sentences.

Several offenders are committed to the center each month — a total of 85 were committed this past year. But because few ever leave the program, the number of participants quickly has reached the facility’s capacity, said Justin Brown, a JLARC staff member.

More than 600 offenders are on pace to be in the program by 2016, he said.

Delegate Johnny Joannou, D-Portsmouth, said he wants to know whether the state’s assessment tool is effective and how it compares to other states.

While offenders are still in prison, they are given a 10-question assessment and then scored zero to 12. Typically, anyone who scores 5 or higher continues to the next step of determining whether they should be civilly committed, Brown said.

Brown said the study will evaluate the challenges these offenders encounter when they return to their communities. Many have a hard time finding housing, for example, because apartment owners don’t want to lease to sex offenders.

Because finding housing is difficult, few offenders never leave the program, which is the primary reason the program is growing so rapidly, Brown said.

The study also will review the costs of the program, which Brown said includes more than just housing and treatment. The Department of Corrections, courts and attorney general’s office all incur costs to run the program.

Joannou said the study also should look into how being deemed a “sexual predator” affects the offenders once they leave the prison system. The designation bars many from employment at military installations and shipyards.

Delegate Harvey Morgan, R-Gloucester, chided the program for allowing its security to cost more than it costs the state to run a prison.

“I don’t understand that. These people have already served their time. They ought to be more or less free to move about within the four walls,” he said.

Morgan asked the staff also to review whether the state has a legal obligation to continue treating the offenders, if they are not responding to the treatment. He said that could justify continuing to detain them without the high cost of psychological treatment.

“I certainly do not want these people on the streets, especially if they are a danger to the public,” he said.

Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, questioned whether longer prison sentences would have an impact on the pace that these offenders are being committed.

Brown said the study also will review alternatives for reducing those cost and making the program more effective. Staff members plan to look at the 19 other programs in the country for comparisons, but Brown said some states have been hesitant to release specifics about their programs.

The study also will review whether expanding the range of crimes that make an offender eligible for the program has contributed to the program’s growth.

Gov. Bob McDonnell has called for adding beds to the growing program. He sought funding for a second facility and to expand the facility in Nottoway County during the 2011 session.

Lawmakers ultimately did not fund the second treatment center but agreed to pay for expanding the capacity of the facility in Nottoway. They also commissioned the study to determine how to curb the use of the program.

Such programs have generated controversy around the country.

The study is slated to be complete in November, ahead of the next General Assembly session when lawmakers will craft a new two-year budget.


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