- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sept. 21

Missouri sexual predators get their day in court

Because a person has committed a horrible sexually violent crime, Missouri doesn’t get to lock the offender up forever.

The state’s sexually violent predator law is constitutional, U.S. District Judge Audrey G. Fleissig ruled Sept. 11, but not the way it’s being applied. Next week the court will begin deciding what comes next.

Judge Fleissig found a “pervasive sense of hopelessness” among those in the Missouri Department of Mental Health’s maximum security Sex Offender Rehabilitation and Treatment Services program.

Some 200 sexually violent predators are locked up at facilities in Fulton and Farmington under the program, created by statute in 1999 and operated by the state Department of Mental Health. These are men who have completed their prison sentences. But because they have been deemed likely to re-offend because of a “mental abnormality,” they were involuntarily committed to the SORTS program.

No one - not one person - was determined to have successfully completed treatment and been released into the community before a federal trial challenging the constitutionality of the program began in April.

After the trial began, three residents were granted conditional releases, and two patients have been allowed to leave the program with certain restrictions, the mental health department says. At about the same time, Missouri officials opened a SORTS annex inside the facility where eight residents were to be taught life skills that would be useful if they were ever released.

The men who enter are committed by civil courts that determine they have a “mental abnormality,” putting them under control of the state mental health system. DMH is allowed to hold them indefinitely in secure facilities until their risk falls to acceptable levels.

In her ruling, Judge Fleissig wrote that the civil commitment program “suffers from systemic failures regarding risk assessment and release that have resulted in the continued confinement of individuals who no longer meet the criteria for commitment . undermining what little improvement the SORTS treatment programs have made.”

Among the state’s failures, she said, was that it did not perform annual reviews, nor did it implement programs to ensure the least restrictive environment for residents or put into place release procedures required by law.

The class-action lawsuit that led to Ms. Fleissig’s ruling began in 2009. The Post-Dispatch’s Jesse Bogan has focused public attention on the SORTS program since he began reporting on it last year.

A trial to consider remedies will begin Sept. 29. Mr. Bogan wrote that Eric Selig, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs, hopes to work with the attorney general’s office and mental health officials “to fix the program and start releasing the people who have successfully completed treatment, which is what the statute is all about.”

Missouri is not the only state trying to figure out what to do with sexually violent predators. Other states have similar laws. The central question is whether SORTS-type facilities genuinely rehabilitate sex offenders or just add a layer of punishment outside the prison system.

A federal judge ruled in June on a case in Minnesota that indefinite commitment of sexually violent predators is unconstitutional when used as punishment.

In 2009, the former chief of operations for the SORTS program wrote that 16 patients could be moved to the less-restrictive St. Louis Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center at 5300 Arsenal Street. The chief, Alan Blake, wrote that five of the 16 could move that day and could “easily” pass a test showing they would not be a danger to neighbors.

The others might need more support or treatment but didn’t represent a risk, and the new setting would provide motivation to improve. Mr. Blake added that a few of the patients would make good employees or peer counselors at the rehabilitation center.

Such details showing patient progress were not included in the annual reports to courts that make decisions about release from SORTS, according to testimony in the federal trial.

The state has a responsibility to protect its citizens, but it also has a duty to treat those in the justice system fairly. Using the mental health department as a dumping ground for men who commit horrific crimes is punishment, not rehabilitation. The state’s failure to pass on details that could have led to the release of some patients was wrong.

Missouri can and must do better.


St. Joseph News-Press, Sept. 21

Ferguson panel informs, cannot order

The 16-member Ferguson Commission has issued a final report with 189 “calls to action,” and now people in every corner of Missouri are tasked with deciding how they should respond.

This is because several of the nonbinding recommendations in the wake of the rioting that followed the death of Michael Brown suggest it is not just Ferguson and St. Louis County that have a problem, but also other communities in the state.

Presumably this includes St. Joseph and the surrounding region. But in reality there is little about what happened in Ferguson that connects with what we experience here.

The report smartly recommends St. Louis County consolidate its 81 municipal courts and 60 municipal police departments - calling the present fragmented system “a grossly inefficient use of taxpayer resources” and “an impediment to justice.”

The panel also uncovered a pattern of excessive force in Ferguson that it correctly faulted for causing many citizens, and especially minorities, “to view the police as an occupying force.” In response, it called for revising use-of-force training for law enforcement officers.

On other points, the panel ventures too far afield in calling for steps that would take away local control in other parts of the state.

We do not support the suggestion the state’s attorney general should act as a special prosecutor in all cases where police use of force results in a death. Local voters already have an accountability mechanism - the ballot box - should they find fault with the service of their local district attorney.

Other recommendations are best left as just that. One seeks a higher minimum wage, as if the current minimum is the cause of what ails our inner cities. Another urges creation of a statewide plan to deal with mass demonstrations.

This report functions best when it seeks to inform policymakers. In this regard, we support the proposal for a statewide database detailing statistics about use-of-force incidents. Such a tracking tool has the potential to enlighten citizens everywhere about an issue that was at the core of the unrest in Ferguson.


The Kansas City Star, Sept. 21

New bishop called to heal diocese wounded by sexual abuse scandal

James V. Johnston Jr., the newly named Catholic bishop of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese, is completely on record about some of society’s most divisive issues.

He opposes the death penalty. He also vocally opposes same-sex marriage. These are long-held positions of Catholic leaders in Missouri, certain to satisfy some and alienate others.

But Johnston isn’t coming here to be a politician. His task is to heal a diocese that has been wounded by clergy sexual abuse scandals and the rigid stances of the previous bishop, Robert Finn.

Johnston, who is coming from the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, seems to understand that mission.

“… I believe that the one that truly heals is Jesus,” he said in Kansas City. “And so I see my role… as sort of being a physician’s assistant - to be a person that facilitates some of that healing.”

To do that, Johnston must establish an apparatus for listening to possible abuse victims and evaluating them fairly. He will have to treat sexual abuse as the crime that it is, and place the welfare of victims and the public ahead of the welfare of the church.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said Johnston has passed up opportunities to take a stand against sexual abuse in the church. But Johnston said he understands the crisis and the need “for calling people to responsibility.”

Given the fate of Finn, who was forced into early retirement, it is reasonable to expect Johnston will take the priest abuse situation seriously.

His good record of supporting social justice causes such as Catholic Charities and Catholic Worker should help in the healing. Of all the issues that divide Catholics and all Americans, the call to serve “the least, the last and the lost” remains a unifying mission.


The Columbia Daily Tribune, Sept. 19

Override session: Not much effect

Meaning the exercise just completed in Jefferson City did little to change the regular session voting in the General Assembly. Except for reversing the decision of the legislature regarding right-to-work, Gov. Jay Nixon’s vetoes had no effect. The intentions of majority Republicans became law even though they had to reaffirm their goals by two-thirds votes.

Of most interest locally were finally enacted laws forbidding local jurisdictions from placing bans on plastic throwaway bags and minimum wages higher than the state mandate. Republicans in the General Assembly said they were saving residents from pernicious local government actions. Democrats and supporters of the local laws said the legislature “usurped” local prerogative.

Well, yes. The state government, meaning the Republican majority, did usurp local authority, but was that a good thing or not? That decision rests on two contradictory visions of the issue.

If one focuses on the content of local laws in question, the case for state control is weak. Who says members of the state legislature from the Bootheel should participate in telling the people of Columbia or St. Louis whether they/we should ban the use of plastic bags or what our minimum wage should be?

On the other hand, if the legitimate issue is consistency, a state mandate is necessary. Where does local authority end and consistency prevail?

Of course, lawmakers make no such fine distinction. If a local law pleases the legislative mentality, no worry about consistency will arise. If state lawmakers don’t like a local law, they will want to deny local prerogative without sounding too much like they are meddling in Main Street affairs.

On a basic level, preserving local prerogative is the more powerful concept. Sometimes broad consistency is most important, but such takeovers should be enacted with maximum restraint. Obviously, this is not usually the case.

By subduing city prerogatives, the state legislature furthers a bad precedent. Rather than reluctantly taking charge when duly important, they eagerly do so simply when something a city council does displeases the political majority.

Wait until the majoritarian table turns, which it will, and see how today’s power mongers like it. Purist lovers of good government, a diminishing breed, worry it won’t make an abiding difference which political clan happens to be in the ascendency - the tendency toward abuse of power will prevail regardless. So it has always been. If we want to change where the car is going, we will have to change drivers, relying more on a new philosophical bias than some sort of mysterious human determination to do the right thing. Then, we will have to change again.

All the while we will continue to argue over what’s the right thing. It’s enough to make a seasoned observer rather sanguine after all. How the hell else shall we do it?

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