WA Lawmakers want to change the way sexually violent predators are released into the community
OLYMPIA, Wash – Years after the state started releasing sexually violent predators from McNeil Island, a bill moving through the Washington legislature would change the way those offenders are released and where they’re allowed to live.
The state classified sexually violent predators as those who have been convicted of a crime of sexual violence, have served their prison time, but have a mental abnormality and are at high risk to re-offend. Those offenders go from prison to the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island.
For many years, no offender had been released. In recent years, though, the state has allowed some of them to be classified as clear to released under a Less Restrictive Alternative or LRA. Several of them have moved to Spokane, specifically to an apartment building on North Lincoln near the Spokane Arena. That’s because the landlord there takes responsibility for their security. The practice has been criticized by local lawmakers and law enforcement, who said putting the offenders here – many with no previous ties to Spokane – puts the community at risk.
In all but one release, there has been no formal community notification of a sexually violent predator moving into Spokane.
Senate Bill 5163 would put further restrictions on the release of sexually violent predators, specifically directing the state to enact policies set forth by the state’s sex offender policy board. Those changes include enacting “fair share principles”, which means that each county should have adequate housing options for these placements so that certain counties don’t accept the majority of releases.
It also states that there needs to be “development of an ongoing, clinically appropriate discharge plan as part of the treatment process.” It also says that having a plan in place does not determine timeline for release. The plan should take into account the offender’s health and physical functioning; a need for special programs; the ability to perform life skills outside of the facility; a summary of the community needs of the offender; and ways to increase social support and employment upon release.
The bill also requires that any offender who is considered indigent should not be released without suitable clothing, and that DSHS should provide a sum of money similar to what is given to those released from state prisons.
In regards to release under Less Restrictive Alternative, the offender needs to identify a residential placement within 90 days of release.
A major change to the bill would be that if the state proposes housing that is outside of the county in which the original crime was committed, the state has to document that it tried to find housing in the original county first.
It also requires the housing to meet current distance requirements placed on other sex offenders in the community. In addition, the offender could not live within 500 feet of a school or child care facility.
When determining placement in the community, the Department of Corrections must also work with a social worker to determine if housing is appropriate. That social worker would also be responsible for connecting the offender to a treatment plan.
Under the bill, if an offender disappears within 72 hours, the Department of Corrections will issue a warrant for their arrest.
“The reason I’m bringing it forward is the experience in my legislative district a couple of years ago,” said Sen. Christine Rofles from Kitsap County. She points to a situation in Poulsbo where people found out after the fact that an adult family home was turned into a home for sexually violent predators. That’s similar to what’s happened with the Lincoln House in Spokane.
Sen. Rofles said agencies passed the buck in notifying the community and that there was no streamlined process.
“This bill is intended to make sure crime victims aren’t revictimized and new victims don’t emerge,” said Sen. Rofles.
Spokane Rep. Jenny Graham spoke in support of the bill in the committee.
“We never hear about what could actually happen if we fail to do our jobs, which are first and foremost to protect our communities from clear and present danger,” said Rep. Graham. Of the offenders and their constitutional rights, she asked, “do their rights supersede innocent victims?”
The Department of Social and Health Services spoke of concerns with the bill. Deputy Asst. Secretary Sjan Talbot said the lack of housing and community treatment partners will slow down the process of release. She also said the bill doesn’t address how local jurisdictions would need to work to create resources necessary to provide housing in communities that don’t currently have it. She said the agency needs counties to partner with the state and this bill does not require it.
Right now, 51 sexually violent predators under LRA are living in communities in Washington. Three of the them are in Spokane. Several others have been released from that status and are not currently under DSHS supervision.
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