Archive for Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Lawmakers clash over sex-offender program

March 26, 2008

Topeka

Kansas' controversial program that indefinitely holds sexual offenders past their prison sentence continues to produce friction among lawmakers.

Last week, a move to require an audit of the program was defeated by legislators who said the request was a threat to public safety and jobs.

"The program works," said House Minority Leader Dennis McKinney, D-Greensburg. "It protects the public, and it provides economic development for Larned."

State Rep. Eber Phelps, D-Hays, said many of the employees of the Kansas Sexual Predator Treatment Program are from the Greensburg area and were set back from last year's tornado that devastated the town.

"I don't think we need to put them through this type of anguish and have them worry about whether they are going to have their job," he said.

But some lawmakers believe the program, which is on the grounds of Larned State Hospital, has shortfalls.

Program history

The program provides treatment for convicted sex offenders who have completed their prison sentences and have been civilly committed under the law because they have been deemed a continuing threat to the community. The law was prompted by the 1993 rape and murder of a Pittsburg State University student by a sex offender who had been released from prison seven months earlier.

The law was challenged up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which on a 5-4 vote ruled that the program was constitutional.

But the costs of the program continue to increase while some legislators are doubtful that the treatment received by the offenders is doing much good.

In recent weeks, lawmakers have approved $1.3 million in supplemental funding for staffing and operations at both the program at Larned State Hospital and transitional housing for patients at Osawatomie.

The proposed budget for the sexual predator treatment program for the present fiscal year is $13.4 million to treat 171 patients. That is five times more than the program cost in 2003.

State Rep. Bob Bethell, R-Alden, who chairs a budget subcommittee that oversees the program, said since the program's start in 1994, two have graduated through the various phases of treatment and been released.

That's not very effective, he said.

"Let's look at the program and see how we can actually affect the treatment of these folks," he said.

Mark Brull, who has been committed to the sexual predator program since 1999, said the program is a waste of taxpayer's money.

Brull said he would rather serve time in prison, which is about one-third the expense of the program.

He said the treatment program fails to advance patients toward re-entering the community, such as allowing patients to go to work under supervision. He said he is prohibited from talking about his current problems, but must constantly re-hash his past.

"All we do is sit here all day and talk about deviancy," he said.

'Backed-up system'

Tim Burch, another patient in the program, said the treatment has good things to offer but that there needs to be a better way to assess who should enter the program and who should graduate from it.

"You could put ankle bracelets on a lot of them and let them out so they could work, and everyone benefits," he said, referring to devices sometimes used to keep track of suspects and offenders.

"You have such a backed-up system," he said of the program. "The people who could benefit from the program can't get into it, and the people who shouldn't be in the program can't get out."

But Don Jordan, secretary of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, defends the program.

SRS, Jordan said, "has implemented a rigorous treatment and evaluation system to assure each person committed in this program remain in treatment until a court determines he is able to safely return home without posing a risk to his family, neighbors or community at large."

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