Virginia’s method of evaluating sex offenders flawed, costly

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RICHMOND — Virginia’s system for assessing which sexually violent offenders should be sent to a state-funded rehabilitation program is fundamentally flawed and has contributed to costs nearly 10 times higher than just seven years ago, according to a report released Monday by the General Assembly’s investigative arm.

Spending on the program has increased from $2.7 million in 2004 to $24.4 million last year, the state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) concluded.

Much of the increase has had to do with changes in the standards by which offenders nearing the end of their prison sentences are committed to the program.

Virginia since 2006 has used a program called Static-99 as a screening tool, grading offenders by a 0-12 scale on their prior sex offenses, their ages and other criteria used to decide the likelihood they might offend again.

Inmates with a score of five or above are eligible for review by a sexually violent predator evaluator and the Commitment Review Committee, while offenders who score below the mark are released at the end of their sentences.

The implementation of the assessment tool led to a dramatically increased number of inmates committed to the program. Justin Brown, project leader for the JLARC study, said the changes to the process were made with the best of intentions toward identifying people who might again be violent offenders.

But in addition to the increased costs of the program, Mr. Brown said another effect of the assessment tests was that rigidity in scoring meant some offenders who gave clear signs they posed a continuing danger were overlooked.

He pointed to a case study in which an inmate was in prison for committing a sexually violent crime against a victim under 13 years old. The inmate admitted to a counselor that he was concerned he would not be able to control his compulsion to have sex with children if released, but he scored a “3” on the assessment — which does not capture stated intent to offend again.

Since the assessment score was so low, his case was not reviewed further and he was released at the end of his prison sentence.

The Department of Corrections estimates such releases occur between three and five times each year, Mr. Brown said.

“It may not be pervasive, but if you happen to be that victim …” said Delegate Harvey Morgan, Gloucester Republican.

Virginia in 2006 also expanded the number of crimes from four to 28 that qualify someone as a sexually violent predator, which has also contributed to the growth in commitments to the program.

Twenty states have civil commitment programs, and newer versions of the Static-99 have been released that indicate the one still used in Virginia may overestimate the risk of future offense, the report said.

On average, offenders have needed more than four years to complete treatment and be released from the program. But they vary greatly in the time it takes them to proceed through the three-phase program, making it difficult to accurately project the future capacity needs at the treatment facility, the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation.

The population at the facility is currently 282, said Olivia J. Garland, deputy commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.

“Our costs are rising like crazy in this particular field,” said Delegate Johnny S. Joannou, Norfolk Democrat, who asked whether the state could potentially lengthen offenders’ sentences while providing similar rehabilitative services at its prisons to keep costs down.

“At the rate this is going, if a person can’t be cured of this particular [behavior], that’s a lifetime in civil commitment.”

The cost-per-patient of $91,000 is higher than the Department of Corrections’ roughly $24,000 per-inmate cost.

Compared with the total number of prisoners released from correctional facilities, the percentage of offenders who make it into the program is rather small. More than 4,000 offenders were convicted and later released for sexually violent predator crimes since 2003, and about 7 percent of those have been civilly committed.

Since that time, three of the 78 sexually violent predators placed on conditional release have been charged with a new sex offense. All three had been committed to the rehabilitation program. Two were not convicted and one was convicted of assault and battery after inappropriately touching minor females at the shopping mall, the report said.

Circuit courts have also approved the conditional release of 21 offenders that were housed at the rehabilitation center.

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