What to do with state’s sex offenders

By WARREN CORNWALL

Herald Writer

Instead of locking up sex offenders for longer periods of time, Washington should devote more attention to treating and monitoring them in prison and in the community.

That was the loudest message prison officials, attorneys and other criminal justice experts delivered to a panel of lawmakers in Everett Tuesday to tackle the thorny issue of what to do with the state’s most serious sex offenders.

"It’s really an issue more of resources than legal authority," said David Boerner, chairman of the state’s Sentencing Guidelines Commission and a Seattle University Law School professor.

The discussion was sparked by legislation to allow longer sentences for some sex offenders. In certain cases the proposed law would amount to "one strike and you’re out," putting sex offenders behind bars for the rest of their lives at the discretion of a state board.

The bill passed the House last year, but died in the Senate amid concerns about its impact.

The gathering swayed one of the bill’s chief backers, Sen. Jeanine Long, R-Mill Creek, not to pursue the legislation further right now. But Long remained concerned the current sentencing system was letting dangerous people out of prison.

"I think we are releasing people that we should not be releasing," she said.

The volatile topic of sex offenders has reignited here and elsewhere in Washington in the past week.

In Snohomish County, 32-year-old Anthony Snow was charged with second-degree rape Thursday, less than a year after he finished a prison sentence for an earlier rape conviction. Snow’s arrival in a Silver Firs neighborhood in March was greeted with widespread concern among neighbors.

Prosecutors allege he forced a 14-year-old relative to have sex with him, and that the girl said he choked her and threatened to kill her.

Snow has pleaded innocent to the charge.

Plans to open a half-way house for one or two serious sex offenders in a Thurston County neighborhood has also sparked an outcry from neighbors and local officials. One of the candidates for living there, Mitchell Gaff, was convicted by a Snohomish County jury of raping two girls in 1984.

Long’s proposal would revive the state’s parole system, giving an appointed board the power to decide when, if ever, certain kinds of sex offenders should be released.

That includes people convicted of rape, rape of a child, child molestation and forcible indecent liberties.

It would apply only when the victim didn’t know the attacker, or knew them only because the attacker sought to lure them into a relationship.

The parole system was scrapped nearly two decades ago in favor of fixed sentences, amid concerns the parole board could be too harsh or too lenient.

Some sex offenders considered "violent predators" are now also involuntarily committed to a special psychiatric facility after their prison sentence ends.

Christi Hurt, associate director of the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Groups, encouraged lawmakers to wait and see if a spate of recent laws helps answer their concerns.

"We need to commit to what we’ve already said we’re going to do," she said.

According to some, the current system needs that commitment.

Corrections officials painted a picture of a patchwork system of treatment and supervision, plagued by a lack of resources.

Treatment programs for sex offenders at the Twin Rivers Corrections Center in Monroe have a constant waiting list, and 30 percent of people seeking to enter the programs must be turned away, said Dr. Art Gordon, director of the program.

"Is it enough?" he said of the program. "Undoubtedly not."

Once sex offenders leave prison, they often can’t find housing, said Victoria Roberts, who administers the Department of Correction’s community protection program, which oversees high-risk offenders.

That makes it harder to keep tabs on them and provide them with the support that can help prevent them from committing more sex crimes, she said.

"The biggest challenge in dealing with our high-risk offenders is where are they going to live?" Gordon said.

You can call Herald Writer Warren Cornwall at 425-339-3463 or send e-mail to

cornwall@heraldnet.com.

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