The state of Texas routinely sent sex offenders back to prison as new arrivals entered its civil commitment program, lacking funds to accommodate all of those being confined for what is supposed to be ongoing treatment.
While the U.S. Supreme Court has sanctioned civil commitment in Texas and 19 other states as long as it is therapeutic and not punitive, some legal scholars say Texas' program has been run to keep sex offenders in custody indefinitely.
Their constitutional concerns now have been bolstered by state records and interviews that suggest the agency charged with overseeing the civil commitment program, the Office of Violent Sex Offender Management, created a revolving door to avoid a shortage of bedspace, often using minor rule infractions as grounds to send its charges back to prison, sometimes for life.
Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, now is calling for a review of all cases in which program participants, who already had completed their criminal sentences, were sent back to prison for breaking program rules.
"There's no question to me that they revoked more people when they ran out of beds, so they could continue committing people to the program," said Whitmire, who has spearheaded calls to reform the Office of Violent Sex Offender Management. "That's absolutely not the way this program was supposed to work."
Nothing excuses bureaucrats for charging people with phony crimes so that, for their own convenience, they can send them back to prison for minor rules violations. But it's true the agency finds itself between a legislatively created rock and a hard place. The Lege required that, "Under a 2005 change in the law [that] all of the committed offenders must live in jails, halfway houses or supervised apartments under contract with, or approved by, the Office of Violent Sex Offender Management." But "supervised apartments" face constant NIMBY backlash and halfway houses and jails aren't viable options.
The article ended with Sen. John Whitmire wondering aloud, "What do you do with them if you have no bed for them to go to? ... You can't send them back to prison because they have completed their sentence," he pointed out, "No one wants them released to the street. But if there are no beds available, where do they go?"
That's the question, isn't it? Being tough on crime is expensive and, eventually, politicians must either budget sufficiently for their policies or back away from them. Texas has reached precisely that point when it comes to the sex offender civil commitment program. Time to fish or cut bait.
MORE: At yesterday's Senate Finance hearing these issues were prominently raised. Again from Ward and Hassan:
Marsha McLane, executive director of the Office of Violent Sex Offender Management since last May, warned lawmakers: "We have no space for anyone else. Unfortunately, the only option may be that we have to go to the street with any new offenders."
McLane said two sex offenders finishing their criminal sentences are due to arrive in the program in the next week, and more than a dozen more are to enter the program by the end of August. All beds are now full, she said, and the state must find another 140 beds by August because two halfway houses have notified the agency they no longer will house the offenders.
"We've got a crisis on our hands," said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, a member of the Finance committee. "This is as big a screw-up as I've seen in all my years up here." ...
McLane said a bidding process for housing twice yielded nothing last year. And a statewide search of closed state youth lockups and adult prisons, even other empty state facilities, so far has come up empty.AND MORE: From the Texas Tribune.
"I've looked at 130 sites. Nothing is available," McLane told the House committee, noting that most communities do not want the convicted sex offenders moving in.