- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 21, 2001

CATONSVILLE, Md. Studies suggest the state should begin managing violent sex offenders in prison, and closely monitor them after release rather than confining them indefinitely in psychiatric facilities, state mental health experts said yesterday.
The General Assembly rejected civil commitment, or indefinite confinement, earlier this year. It has proven costly in other states, and is considered ethically questionable by many mental health professionals, W. Lawrence Fitch, forensic department director of the Mental Hygiene Administration, told a state task force on sex offenders.
The group, led by the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, aims to recommended a sex-offender policy that balances public protection with appropriate treatment.
Sex-offender issues were high on the legislative agenda in the last session following the arrest of a repeat sex offender last fall in the murder of Christopher Ausherman, 9, of Frederick. Lawmakers refused to enact any major changes until the task force completes its work later this year.
The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of indefinitely confining violent sex offenders who are considered a danger to others because of a "mental abnormality," even though they are not found to have a mental illness. Even so, the American Psychiatric Association and the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors consider civil commitment, which is legal in 16 states, to be mainly punitive, not therapeutic, Mr. Fitch said.
"It looks as though the majority of those committed have an anti-social personality disorder. These are folks who are at high risk for acting out, but not particularly good candidates for psychiatric care," he said.
Mr. Fitch, who oversees an annual national survey on civil confinement, said the cost to taxpayers ranges from about $70,000 to $150,000 per patient per year.
Maria C.P. Haine, chief psychiatrist with the public-safety agency, said that while there are few studies on the subject, research suggests that sex offenders who learn to manage their impulses through talk therapy, education and medication are less likely to commit the same crime again.
She said there is almost no sex-offender treatment available at Maryland prisons outside of the Patuxent Institution, a psychiatric correctional facility where 20 sex offenders are participating in a five-year program that includes group therapy and education.
Georges Benjamin, secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, told the nearly 30 panel members that the best policy will be a balancing act.
"Clearly, we have to err on the side of protecting the public, but we have to do it in the appropriate way," he said.
The General Assembly has directed the task force to produce an interim report by July 1 and a final report by Oct. 1.
Two more meetings are scheduled on Aug. 10 and Sept. 14, both at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County campus in Catonsville.

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