State proposes McNeil Is. for sex-offender rehab

Associated Press

TACOMA — A prison work camp on McNeil Island could be converted into a 176-bed replacement for the overcrowded Special Commitment Center for sex offenders, state officials say.

Hoping to persuade U.S. District Judge William Dwyer to lift a 6-year-old injunction, attorneys for the state Department of Social and Health Services on Thursday presented the preliminary plan at the conclusion of a three-day hearing in Tacoma.

Another unit at the prison on the south Puget Sound island currently houses the state’s most violent rapists and pedophiles, who have been ordered confined after completing prison terms.

Dwyer has ruled that a new facility outside the medium-security McNeil Island Corrections Center is necessary to bring the sex offender treatment program up to constitutional standards.

The judge also said that inmates of the center must be given the opportunity to make their way back into society, prompting the state to choose a site near the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla for a halfway house.

Dwyer has threatened to fine the state for not doing more to improve psychiatric care at the center and is expected to rule in the next few weeks on whether to impose more than $1 million in fines.

Hoping to slow the siting process, the Walla Walla City Council voted Wednesday to sue DSHS over the agency’s proposal to locate a halfway house for sex predators near the Washington State Penitentiary. The council contends the agency failed to follow public processes in choosing the site.

The council also approved a moratorium and interim zoning ordinance to temporarily block the agency’s application for a building permit.

DSHS had planned to build a 402-bed facility on McNeil Island, outside the prison, to comply with Dwyer’s orders.

Now it appears the minimum-security McNeil Island Work Ethic Camp may be available to DSHS by the summer of 2002, DSHS staff said.

The 40-acre camp has about 180 beds, an education center and ball fields.

While the decision for the halfway house riled Walla Walla residents, some Snohomish County residents were relieved. A proposal to use state land behind the old Indian Ridge Youth Camp in Arlington Heights for the halfway house was dropped. A location south of Monroe is considered an alternate to the Walla Walla site.

Walla Walla city officials acknowledged they may not be able to stop DSHS from building and operating the halfway house on state.

"You cannot simply say no," city attorney Tim Donaldson said, citing state Growth Management Act mandates requiring municipalities to plan for "essential public facilities."

But council members said they want to slow the process long enough to give the public its say before DSHS officials at a public hearing Jan. 24.

City officials are upset with DSHS officials since learning through a press release late last month that Walla Walla was among the 11 sites being considered for the sex predator housing site.

DSHS Secretary Dennis Braddock selected Walla Walla from three finalists for the halfway house on Dec. 1, just days ahead of a deadline set by Dwyer for choosing a site.

"The secretary of DSHS basically walked all over our processes," Donaldson said. "What we’re doing says that they are required to go through our processes."

The failure of DSHS officials to publicly include residents in its siting process violates city and county planning policies, comprehensive plans, and the city’s zoning code, Donaldson said.

The council ordered a six-month moratorium, beginning Jan. 1, 2001, on permit applications for halfway houses.

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

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