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Some stories need more time in the oven

April 1, 2010 - 6:38 am

According to a headline in Wednesday’s Union-Tribune: “More mentally ill sex offenders freed on parole.”

Yikes! Really? How so?

First a little background: If you’re a sex offender whose crime is considered “sexually violent” by law and you’ve served your prison sentence, before you’re released, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will refer you to the Department of Mental Health (DMH) to be evaluated for possible commitment to a state mental hospital. Prior to Nov. 6, 2006, when Prop. 83, or Jessica’s Law, was passed, a sex offender who committed a sexually violent offense against two or more victims was referred to DMH. Jessica’s Law lowered the evaluation threshold to one victim and added to the list of crimes considered sexually violent. For instance, touching a child’s knee—if the act can be interpreted as sexually motivated—is, under Jessica’s Law, considered a sexually violent offense; a person convicted of that crime will be screened for possible commitment to a state mental hospital.

According to the U-T article, in 2005, the department of corrections referred 524 offenders to DMH for further evaluation. DMH decided that 238—roughly half—needed further screening to determine whether they should be committed.

In 2006, out of 636 referrals, DMH agreed that 220 needed further evaluation.

In 2007 (when Jessica’s Law took effect) 9,853 sex offenders—a 1,500 percent increase over 2006—were referred DMH. DMH agreed that 2,835 needed further evaluation.

2008: 7,063 referred to DMH; DMH agreed that 1,317 required further evaluation

2009: 6,705 referred to DMH; DMH agreed that 1,126 required further evaluation

The U-T used pie charts to show that although there are more offenders being screened, the overall percentage of offenders that DMH agreed needed further evaluation has shrunk from 45 percent in 2005 to 17 percent in 2009.

Then there’s number of people actually committed to a state mental hospital (according to the U-T):
23 in 2006
27 in 2009

To re-cap: In 2006, 636 sex offenders referred to DMH —> DMH agrees that 220 need further evaluation —-> 23 are sent to a state mental hospital (there are a couple of steps between DMH and the hospital, including review by the District Attorney’s office and a hearing before a judge).

In 2009: 6,705 sex offenders referred to DMH —> DMH agrees that 1,126 require further evaluation —> 27 are hospitalized.

So, as the headline asserts, are there really a bunch of mentally ill sex offenders on parole who should otherwise be committed to a state mental hospital? Dunno. They story’s not clear on that. How did we get from 1,126 to 27? How many did DMH refer to the District Attorney? How many did the District Attorney refer for a judicial hearing? Can only offenders with a sex-related mental illness (pedophilia, paraphilia) be hospitalized under the SVP law? Are such diagnoses rare? Most important: Is Jessica’s Law—which had no identified funding source to pay for its mandates—casting too large a net and straining resources? According to a January 2010 report by the California Sex Offender Management Board (SOMB):

Each person clinically evaluated by [the Department of Mental Health] costs a minimum of $7,000, plus travel expenses for the evaluators, and up to $14,000, plus expenses. With the number of Pen. Code, § 290 registrants being clinically evaluated for possible SVP commitment by DMH increasing from 23 per month on average to 153 per month, the average cost of clinical evaluations alone increased from $161,000 to at least $1,071,000 monthly.

There are important questions that need to be asked and answered, but the Union-Tribune rushed a story to print without consulting a single expert. Not one. A DMH spokesperson was given a day (if that) to respond, and it’s not like there’s no one else who knows how the system works and could have commented. C’mon editors—you’ve got some good reporters assigned to the Gardner case. Let them do their work and do it thoroughly. Otherwise, all you’re doing is adding to the noise.

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