Some sex offenders may return to home counties, but where?

A search is on for a Snohomish County site to house a dozen or more offenders returning from McNeil Island.

OLYMPIA — State officials are searching for a place in Snohomish County to house convicted sex offenders who have served their sentences and are eligible for release from a civil commitment facility on McNeil Island in Pierce County.

The Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) will get $6 million in the next capital budget for the siting and design of a secure community transition facility, where 24 people deemed “sexually violent predators” would reside under close supervision once out of total confinement on the island.

It will be several years before anyone arrives from the special commitment center because additional dollars are needed to actually construct a new building or renovate an existing one, agency officials said.

But they have briefed the area’s state lawmakers and other elected officials and will eventually hold a town hall to address questions and concerns of county residents.

“We want to be as transparent as we possibly can without creating fear for people unnecessarily,” said Dave Flynn, chief executive officer of the special commitment center.

Most civic leaders reached shared a desire to see the safety of the public drive the agency’s decision-making process.

“The safety and security of our residents is a top priority for Snohomish County,” said Josh Dugan, chief of staff to county Executive Dave Somers. “Although there have been no decisions made by the state about location or siting, we will continue to advocate for ensuring there are no new risks added to any of our communities and that any facility would be placed somewhere with easy access for law enforcement.”

Under a 1990 law known as the Community Protection Act, sex offenders who have completed their criminal sentences but are determined by a court to be a “sexually violent predator” may be locked up indefinitely at the center on McNeil Island. While in custody there, individuals undergo counseling and treatment and may, at any time, petition a court for release into a less restrictive alternative placement, such as a supervised setting in the community.

The state is looking to add more alternative beds because the number of people eligible to leave the special commitment center is rising. And it wants DSHS to operate the living quarters rather than subcontract with private homeowners, as is done now in some counties, including Snohomish.

Under another state law, those convicted offenders are to be returned to the county where they were sentenced, if possible. Not surprisingly, the greatest number come from the most populous counties of King (69), Pierce (40) and Snohomish (22). The state is also considering secure facilities for Clark and Spokane counties.

Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell, one of those briefed on the undertaking, said it is important that DSHS be thoughtful in its decision to ensure any site chosen “doesn’t compromise the safety and livability of our community.”

“We have a state prison now in Monroe,” he said. “We don’t want to see a disproportionate impact on one county or another.”

What is proposed in Snohomish County would be the state’s third secure community transition facility. The state now operates one on McNeil Island with 24 beds, in addition to the special commitment center, and one in south Seattle, with 12 beds.

In addition, the state contracts with two privately run homes in Snohomish County, which collectively house six sex offenders under 24-hour supervision.

A secure community transition facility is staffed and operated by the Department of Social and Health Services. While it is a residential environment, the building would be locked and monitored around the clock. Residents would be under direct supervision of a state employee whenever they go into the community.

Those living there would receive counseling, participate in a sex offender treatment program and have access to services to assist in their transition from prison and total confinement through their civil commitment on McNeil Island.

“Having a step down is in the best interest of many of the residents,” Flynn said.

Officials know that finding a site in Snohomish County won’t be easy, given general opposition to such facilities.

While the department’s budget request described a place large enough to house 16 to 24 people, Flynn said they are eyeing a location for eight to 12 people.

As consultants work on identifying potential properties, Flynn’s focus will be on informing civic leaders and residents of what’s planned and responding to concerns.

One theme is certain to be safety. In an interview, he noted there had been no calls for law enforcement to the King County facility in its two decades of operation.

Another theme will be the broader benefit for the community and convicted offenders.

“Some people never engage in treatment and get unconditionally released,” Flynn said. “Instead, they’ll be under the control of the state.”

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: jcornfield@heraldnet.com; @dospueblos

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