High court to consider sex predator center


Associated Press

McNEIL ISLAND — The Special Commitment Center is on the grounds of a medium-security prison, protected by prison guards and accessible only by a prison-run ferry.

The 125 residents, all sex offenders who have completed their prison sentences, are confined inside dual razor-edged fences, and cannot be released without court permission.

But the center is not a prison as far as the state is concerned.

The 10-year-old center, operating under civil law, is where the most violent rapists and child molesters in Washington state are sent after they leave prison. State officials say the center provides treatment that eventually will allow the sex offenders to go free. Only five have so far.

Some inmates claim the whole program is a sham, an unconstitutional scheme concocted by lawmakers to keep sex offenders locked up.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear those arguments Tuesday in the case of six-time rapist Andre Brigham Young.

Young, 59, was convicted and imprisoned repeatedly over a 31-year period. He completed his last sentence, a four-year term, in 1990.

On the day he was to be released, the state began proceedings that led to a jury trial to determine whether Young was a "sexually violent predator" with a "mental abnormality" that made him likely to strike again. The jury concluded he was, and Young was involuntarily committed, under civil law, to the Special Commitment Center.

That was 10 years ago.

Young argues the treatment program is so inadequate it amounts to punishment, which violates his constitutional protection against double jeopardy. He is demanding his release.

Washington state’s program served as a model for a Kansas law upheld by the Supreme Court in 1997. But Young’s lawyer, Robert Boruchowitz, said the high court left open the possibility that a program could be deemed unconstitutional if it is applied in a punitive way.

The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals agreed in 1999 and ordered a hearing to determine if Young’s confinement was punitive. The state appealed to the Supreme Court.

"If you want to set up a facility to help people reintegrate into society and live a crime-free life, you don’t put it in the middle of a prison on an island that you can only get to on a prison boat," Boruchowitz said.

Young declined to be interviewed. But in an interview broadcast on the Public Broadcasting System in 1996, he said the state clearly had no intention of ever setting him free.

"If you’re not allowing a person to be released and there is no end time to it, that’s death. So what you have here is a death sentence disguised as treatment," Young said.

Sarah Sappington, an attorney for the state, said the Supreme Court has already held that the center is constitutional as a civil program.

Sappington said that most of Young’s complaints date to the early 1990s. The state, facing the threat of fines by a federal judge concerned about the lack of treatment in the program’s early years, now is spending millions on the facility.

State officials have gone to great lengths to separate operations of the commitment center from its host prison, the McNeil Island Corrections Center, situated on a Puget Sound island.

The sex offenders — the staff members call them "residents," "gentlemen" or "our guys," not "inmates" — live in the prison’s "A" pod, which is separated from the rest of the prison by a fence. The men enjoy considerably more freedom than McNeil inmates; some have computers, stereos, televisions and videocassette recorders in rooms that look better than some college dorm rooms.

New treatment rooms were completed earlier this month, and the clinical staff has nearly doubled in size. The sex offenders can wear their own clothes.

About 100 men participate in treatment programs that teach them to recognize when they are lapsing into sexually deviant behavior. Twenty-three other sex offenders, including Young, are considered "treatment resisters" and live in a separate unit.

State officials maintain that, even if the courts say the government has failed to provide adequate treatment to Young, the solution is not to set him free.

"Mr. Young has never participated in treatment. And now he wants to use the alleged fact of ‘no treatment’ to say he should be released," Sappington said.

Even if the state loses the case, Sappington cautioned that there would be no exodus of sex offenders. Each sex offender would have to sue the state in federal court and demonstrate that treatment has been so inadequate in his or her case that release is the only remedy, she said.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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