- Associated Press - Monday, September 21, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - A new treatment-based initiative designed to supervise violent sex offenders after they complete their prison sentences faces growing legal questions, including whether offenders placed in the old civil commitment program can be forced to join the new one.

A judge in Montgomery County last week refused to order five convicted sex offenders into the new program, the Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/1Fb2gfM ) reported - a decision that, if not overturned, may mean Texas will have to offer two separate treatment programs.

“They have created problems that no other system has had to deal with,” said Melissa Hamilton, a visiting scholar at the University of Houston Law Center. “They are in uncharted territory, legally and ethically.”

Texas is one of 20 states with laws that keep repeat sex offenders who are likely to reoffend under supervision for treatment after their prison terms are complete. Courts have ruled that such programs are legal only if offenders are able to graduate from treatment and eventually reintegrate into society.

The Legislature overhauled Texas’ civil commitment program this year in the wake of a series of stories by the newspaper, which revealed questions about its constitutionality, including the fact that none of the more than 350 men in the program had been released in its 16-year history. Nearly half had been sent back to prison for violating program rules and the rest have been kept in halfway houses, jails, a boarding house and at least one in a state-supported living center.

There are also seven federal lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the civil commitment program pending.

Attorneys say those lawsuits have prompted some in Texas’ old program to question or refuse to sign the waivers to voluntarily transfer into the new program, fearing doing so may invalidate their pending suits or limit their rights. Eighty-five of the men signed the waivers, but 97 others did not. The result was a stream of hearings in the Montgomery County courtroom where the men originally were ordered into the civil commitment program. Most were ordered into the new program.

Under the new program, offenders receive initial treatment in a confined facility, and then are given more freedom to work and shop in the outside world. Upon graduation, the men would be allowed to live in a community under supervision.

The new program is headquartered at a repurposed private prison in the remote West Texas town of Littlefield. Since Sept. 1, the state has moved 174 offenders there from halfway houses around the state, officials said.

Prosecutors insist the state can change the conditions of civil commitment at any time, though an attorney who represents some of the men challenging the transfers argues that nothing requires his clients to participate in the new program.

State Sen. John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston who was the architect of the law reforming the civil commitment program, said he thinks an opinion from the Texas attorney general may be needed to resolve the issues.

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

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