Effort to detain sex offenders for treatment revived

Measure seeks to commit convicts to medical institution

Proposal has failed 3 times

January 18, 2001|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

The killing of a 9-year-old Frederick boy has prompted a renewed push for a state law that would keep sexual predators locked up after they have completed their prison terms.

Supporters of the measure, which has failed three times in the Maryland General Assembly, say such a law would have saved the life of Christoper Lee Ausherman, who was sexually assaulted and killed in November.

Authorities have charged Elmer Spencer Jr., 46, a man with a history of convictions for sex crimes, in Christopher's death. Spencer was released from prison five days before the killing Nov. 19.

"We have an obligation in society to protect the general population from sexual predators," said Del. Sue Hecht, a Frederick County Democrat who plans to sponsor the commitment legislation again this year in Annapolis.

Under Hecht's draft proposal, which is similar to laws in 16 other states, authorities could commit most sex offenders to state medical institutions through a civil court procedure. Offenders, including child molesters and rapists, then could be held indefinitely for treatment that could last for years or until the patient dies.

Though the practice concerns civil libertarians, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a Kansas commitment law as constitutional in 1997 and yesterday reinforced that decision in a Washington state case.

Among the supporters of Hecht's proposal is Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who is scheduled to travel today to Kansas and examine that state's sex offender program.

"Civil commitment, at least, is something to give protection to the public from people with mental abnormalities who have demonstrated repeated efforts to harm children," said Curran, who has testified for a similar bill in the past.

But not all Maryland officials have lined up behind the proposal.

"We see it as trying to solve societal problems by medicalizing the problem," said W. Lawrence Fitch, state director of forensic services, an office at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that deals with criminals who have mental disorders.

Under Hecht's proposal, the health department would be in charge of treating and housing the inmates. Last year, the health department opposed the legislation. Health officials said they had not decided whether to lobby against the measure again.

In past statements, health officials said the program would cost too much and drain valuable resources from people who need psychiatric help. Health officials also said that hospitalizing sex offenders would unfairly stigmatize people with other mental disorders and endanger them.

Officials normally use civil commitment laws to hospitalize mentally ill people who might harm themselves or others. But a decade ago, Washington state broadened the scope of those commitment laws to deal with sexual predators.

Since then, 15 other states have enacted laws allowing officials to confine sexual predators. Hecht's bill will likely be modeled after Kansas' law.

There, state psychologists examine sex offenders as they near release from prison, to determine if they still pose a danger, state officials said. If an offender appears to be a threat, state officials request a hearing before a judge and get permission to test the inmate at a state hospital.

After the inmate is examined by state doctors and his own psychiatrists, state officials decide whether to commit him to the Larned Correctional Mental Health Facility in central Kansas. The inmate can agree to be committed or request a jury trial.

The state conducts a yearly review to determine if the commitment is still justified, and inmates can petition courts to release them. Since 1995, Kansas has committed 56 offenders, about 60 percent of those examined, state officials said.

Many psychiatrists, and some Maryland officials, say authorities should focus on creating programs that deal with rapists, pedophiles and others while they are behind bars.

In Maryland, those offenders often remain in prison for years. Rapists convicted of a single count serve between 25 and 30 years, state officials said. Maryland has one prison program for sex offenders, handling 20 inmates at the Patuxent Institution in Jessup.

Some experts have compared sex offenders to addicts - they know what they are doing is wrong but cannot, or do not want to, seek help. "We try to change their thought patterns," said Austin DesLauriers, director of Kansas' program for sexual offenders.

Though some treatments seem to work, experts say, their success usually depends on the willingness of the patient to improve. Kansas officials, for example, concede that some inmates don't want help and might never leave the hospital.

That has led some mental health experts to question the legitimacy of civil commitments for sex offenders, especially those who refuse help.

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