I'm sure most of you have seen the New York Times coverage of sex offender civil commitment program by now. I was traveling this weekend, so I only read the first segment today. The second segment is also available online. These articles are notable because the NYT is giving front page coverage to sex offender issues in a way that isn't wholly sensationalized. Here is a segment from the first article:
Even with the enthusiasm among politicians, an examination by The New York Times of the existing programs found they have failed in a number of areas:
Sex offenders selected for commitment are not always the most violent; some exhibitionists are chosen, for example, while rapists are passed over. And some are past the age at which some scientists consider them most dangerous. In Wisconsin, a 102-year-old who wears a sport coat to dinner cannot participate in treatment because of memory lapses and poor hearing.
The treatment regimens are expensive and largely unproven, and there is no way to compel patients to participate. Many simply do not show up for sessions on their lawyers’ advice — treatment often requires them to recount crimes, even those not known to law enforcement — and spend their time instead gardening, watching television or playing video games.
The cost of the programs is virtually unchecked and growing, with states spending nearly $450 million on them this year. The annual price of housing a committed sex offender averages more than $100,000, compared with about $26,000 a year for keeping someone in prison, because of the higher costs for programs, treatment and supervised freedoms.
Unlike prisons and other institutions, civil commitment centers receive little standard, independent oversight or monitoring; sex among offenders is sometimes rampant, and, in at least one facility, sex has been reported between offenders and staff members.
Successful treatment is often not a factor in determining the relatively few offenders who are released; in Iowa, of the nine men let go unconditionally, none had completed treatment or earned the center’s recommendation for release.
Few states have figured out what to do when they do have graduates ready for supervised release. In California, the state made 269 attempts to find a home for one released pedophile. In Milwaukee, the authorities started searching in 2003 for a neighborhood for a 77-year-old offender, but have yet to find one.
Supporters of the laws offer no apologies for their shortcomings, insisting that the money is well spent. Born out of the anguish that followed a handful of high-profile sex crimes in the 1980s, the laws are proven and potent vote-getters that have withstood constitutional challenges.
Needless to say, the NYT coverage is extremely critical of civil commitment programs. The various findings of the investigation seem to clearly substantiate the claim that civil commitment programs are really only designed to detain offenders, not to actually decrease recidivism upon release. The second segment in the series focuses on the failures of civil commitment in Florida:
Yet as the story of the center here in Arcadia reveals, even a $19 million partnership between the state and a company that describes itself as “a national leader in the field of specialized sex offender treatment and management” failed to meet a central purpose: treating sex offenders so they would be well enough to return to society.
“It was like walking into a war zone,” Jared Lamantia, one of the visiting workers who signed the memorandum, recalled in an interview. “The residents in that place ran the whole facility.”
The memorandum is among thousands of pages of public and private documents about the Florida center reviewed by The New York Times, providing a rare window into the lives of civilly committed sexual predators and the people who guard and treat them. While programs like Florida’s are popular because they keep sex offenders locked away past their prison terms, they cost far more than prison — in the case of Florida, on average twice as much — with no measurable benefit beyond confinement.
Professor Berman's coverage of the first article points to this nice graphic accompanying the first article in the series. CrimProf is also covering the article series. Ben Barlyn, in a nice guest-blogging stint at Corrections Sentencing is also on the case.
It's a shame the NYT waited until after the debate in NY was pretty much over on the issue before releasing this excellent series.