Time to pass civil commitment law for sexual predators
BY JULIE DELCOUR Associate Editor
Sunday, January 08, 2012
1/08/12 at 3:52 AM
Perhaps less disciplined professionals might have obliged Marcus Berry in August 2009 when he ranted, "Kill me. Just f------ kill me now."
Tulsa Police Officers Mark Wollmershauser Jr. and his partner Stephanie Blann had discovered Berry, a repeat child molester, sitting in what they thought was an abandoned truck in an overgrown field in North Tulsa. The sight stunned them. Beside the partially clad Berry was a frightened 2-year-old girl, in a pink dress, abducted from her grandmother's yard a short time before.
Berry, 56, who had eight felony convictions including two priors for lewd molestation, did not get his wish that day. Instead he was arrested and sent through the court system yet another time.
In April 2010, a jury convicted him, and Tulsa County District Judge Bill Kellough later sentenced him to two consecutive life sentences on lewd molestation and kidnapping charges. Not eligible for parole, he likely will die in prison.
Unlike Berry, many child molesters do return to the community after serving their time. (Berry himself was behind bars 13 years before being released and eventually preying on another child.)
The question is: What do we do with these predators who have "paid" their debt to society but are too dangerous to return to the community?
State Rep. John Trebilcock thinks he has a solution for the most dangerous sexual offenders due for release - civilly confine them in mental institutions. The law, he says, would give prosecutors a valuable tool, if used judiciously, and confinement could minimize public risk.
House Bill 2190 is patterned after similar laws in Kansas and Texas that already have been upheld by courts. If the bill passes, Oklahoma would join the federal government and 20 other states with laws allowing involuntary commitment of certain violent sex offenders. Judges can order commitment if "clear and convincing" evidence shows that offenders suffer from a medical abnormality or personality disorder that makes them likely to engage in predatory acts of sexual violence. Treatment and assessment are required components. Otherwise, confinement would constitute double jeopardy - punishment for the same crime(s) twice.
At least 4,000 pedophiles, rapists or other sex offenders are being held under civil confinement laws, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics. Housing and treatment cost taxpayers more than $700 million a year, as much as $150,000 per individual - about four times more than confining an offender to prison.
"As we have seen with the Penn State scandal, a single child molester is capable of devastating the lives of countless innocent children," Treblicock said. "These criminals typically remain a public-safety threat even after completing a prison sentence and it is necessary to ensure they are not allowed to return to the communities they have victimized."
Former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky is awaiting trial on charges that he molested multiple boys over a number of years. That tragedy follows an international scandal in the Catholic church involving widespread abuse of children by priests. Also, still carved in the public's hearts and minds are the murders of those children who became household names; child-protection laws were created in their memory: Polly Klaas, Adam Walsh, Megan Kanka. Civil commitment laws for pedophiles were born out of the revulsion that followed those and other high-profile sex crimes against children.
Oklahoma has had its share of violent and shocking crimes against children as well, including the 1977 murders of three young girls at a Girl Scout camp.
While the laws are enthusiastically embraced by a frustrated public and politicians anxious to fix the problem, there is a downside to civil commitments. A New York Times investigation found that:
- Sex offenders selected for commitment are not always the most violent; some exhibitionists are chosen, for example, while rapists are passed over. And some offenders are past the age at which some scientists consider them most dangerous. In Wisconsin, a 102-year-old who wears a sport coat to dinner cannot participate in treatment because of poor hearing and memory lapses.
- Treatment programs are often unproven, and patients cannot be forced to participate.
- Program costs are virtually unchecked and mushrooming.
- Unlike prisons and other institutions, civil-commitment mental-health facilities often receive little consistent, independent oversight or monitoring.
- Few states have figured out what to do when offenders are "ready" for release from civil commitment facilities.
Supporters of the civil commitment laws make no apologies, insisting that the money is well spent and that predators are off the streets.
"There has to be a process in place that prevents someone from rejoining society if they're still dangerous," said Jeffrey Klein, a New York State senator who pushed for a law there years ago.
Some advocates for sex abuse victims argue money is being wasted and other options would work better, such as longer prison terms, preventing sentencing deals and mandated treatment during incarceration.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections perpetually struggles with overcrowding and has limited funds for treatment of sexual offenders. So, many molesters return to society from prison with their criminal and psychological proclivities still very much intact.
Berry was one of them. Before his release in 2006, he served 13 years of a 30-year sentence for molesting an 8-year-old girl. If he received any treatment it's obvious it did not work.
Civil confinement isn't a perfect solution, but what is the solution in a world of Marcus Berrys or worse?
Original Print Headline: What can Oklahoma do about sexual predators?