No easy fix to homeless sex offender problem, state corrections chief says

OLYMPIA — Washington is not unique in its struggle with where to put sex offenders who have no place to sleep when they get out of prison.

Nor did the state set a precedent with the decision to order convicted rapist David Torrence to wear a GPS tracking device and live under a Snohomish bridge.

But when Torrence hacked off the equipment and went on the lam, forcing his victim to live again in fear, it spotlighted how the Department of Corrections arrived at this situation.

And why it could happen again.

“We’re not fond of this ‘under the bridge’ plan. It emerges as the best of what you’ve got to work with when dealing with these offenders,” Washington Secretary of Corrections Eldon Vail said Friday.

Corrections officials across the country confront daily the challenge of sex offenders without an apartment, shelter or motel room to bed down at night.

In Florida, when authorities ran out of places in ­Miami-Dade County in 2007, they set up an encampment for sex offenders under a bridge linking Miami to Miami Beach.

It’s not that bad in Washington. Yet in the past 18 months, 74 convicted sex offenders released from prison have registered as homeless. Vail said some surely did get placed under bridges, just like Torrence.

The state spent months trying without success to find Torrence a home. Finally, on his release April 20, the decision was made to designate a bridge over U.S. 2 his residential base.

Three days later, he was gone, and the search continues today.

Vail spoke with The Herald on Friday about the case, the difficulty of finding housing for homeless offenders and whether letting them live in trailers on prison grounds could be an option.

Q: Why must sex offenders (sometimes) be put under a bridge?

A: This is a last resort. We only release sex offenders homeless when there is no other alternative for us under the laws of the state of Washington. When the person committed the crime makes a big difference in what kind of authority the department has over an individual offender.

Q: I’m not sure if living under the Snohomish bridge is legal. So, if Torrence got arrested for illegal camping, he might have landed back behind bars and might have made the state liable for something.

A: I had not thought about that. I wasn’t aware that it was illegal. If he got violated he would be back in custody. That would be an interesting situation. It is my understanding we chose that site in coordination with local law enforcement. It is not atypical of what we’ve done in other parts of the state.

Q: Was he the first to ever be assigned to live under a bridge?

A: No. And I am not sure we actually “assign” them to live under a bridge. They have nowhere to go, yet they have to be in one place during curfew hours. Sites get determined so we can check on them.

Q: Since Torrence’s escape, have you made any changes in supervising other homeless sex offenders?

A: No.

Q: Requiring victims to be notified when their attacker escapes supervision by removing their tracking devices seemed like a no-brainer. Why wasn’t it happening already?

A: We didn’t think of it. Currently our notification requirements follow the state law. We didn’t think of the impact of this new technology and neither did the Legislature in all of our conversations with them about GPS. We simply missed it. I would put it in the category of no-brainer. We should have thought of it and we didn’t. We have apologized to the victim for our oversight.

Q: On May 1, there were 20,015 sex offenders registered in this state. At least 500 are listed as homeless in Washington State Patrol databases. How much danger are we living with?

A: Look at this over a period of 15 to 20 years. Twenty years ago we didn’t know where any sex offenders were. I believe we are all better off knowing where the sex offenders live rather than homeless. So, yes, we’re probably safer when people have an approved address with four walls and a roof over their head.

It’s also produced this group we can’t find homes because of the notification process. People don’t want sex offenders in their back yards. We have a different problem than we had 20 years ago.

Under more recent sentencing laws known as determinate-plus, the number of people meeting the criteria and getting out homeless is getting less and less. Determinate-plus means the Indeterminate Sentencing Review Board has the authority to allow us to keep them locked up when they have no residence to release to. We don’t put people under a bridge because we want to.

Q: Many states face a similar problem of homeless sex offenders. In Washington, can we find them all homes?

A: Can we house all the homeless offenders? We haven’t figured out how to yet. There were some noble efforts by legislators to try and get their arms around this in the last couple of legislative sessions. Do you remember the molester motels? That was the same problem with a different solution. We want to find them a place to stay where it is safer for all of us.

Q: Why can’t they be housed in trailers on the grounds of the prisons?

A: I had thought of that, but it doesn’t solve the problem. They are free citizens, although with the restrictions of community supervision. We have some control over where they can go, but they have rights to move around freely and go to work, to the store, to town, to church, etc. Think about what would happen if we housed sex offenders in trailers on the prison grounds at Monroe or Walla Walla. I suspect the communities would be concerned with this as a solution to the problem and rightly so. It doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, but I can’t say I haven’t thought about it.

Q: Some lawmakers talk of building halfway houses. Do you support that?

A: Yes, I absolutely do, but it gets to the issue of how do you site them. I would argue it is better for the homeless sex offenders to be somewhere and not under a bridge. I don’t know if our communities are ready for it.

Q: Do you think any new laws are needed as a result of this case?

A: Not for me, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t policymakers out there who see a way to try and fix the situation. I don’t know what law would be passed that would fix the problem.

Q: Has the governor asked you for anything?

A: No, we have not had that conversation.

Q: Rep. Al O’Brien, D-Mountlake Terrace, wants the maximum penalty for disabling or removing a GPS device to be life in prison. Do you agree?

A: I don’t know. We’ll need to talk about how to enhance the penalty. There should be significant penalties for this.

Q: The big question is this: Can you prevent another escape like David Torrence?

A: No. Next time, if there is a victim enrolled, we will make sure they are notified. But there is nothing fail-safe about the GPS. The good news is that with GPS we will know the offender has decided he is not going to play by the rules and we can get the warrant out for his arrest.

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