American Independent, 7/12/2012 [Archive]

Should Sex Offender Programs Be Privatized?

Should Sex Offender Programs Be Privatized?

By Siddhartha Mahanta, The American Independent

Virginia will soon decide whether to award a contract to run its detention facility for sexually violent predators to GEO Group, the nation's second largest private prison company.

GEO already operates psychiatric and other treatment facilities in Florida, South Carolina, and Texas. Now it's competing to run the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation, a civil commitment center for "sexually violent predators" who have completed their criminal sentences but are deemed by a court to be at risk of re-offending.

Rather than being released at a predetermined date, these offenders are sent to VCBR for "intensive treatment." According to the state, their "eventual conditional release" is "determined by their progress in treatment and reduction of re-offense risk."

In 2006, Virginia's legislature greatly increased the number of crimes that can qualify convicts for the program and changed the process for identifying which of these offenders are eligible for civil commitment.

The result: a population explosion. In January 2011, state officials warned legislators that the VCBR facility was already over capacity and that the population would continue to grow. Less than a month later, GEO submitted an unsolicited bid to operate VCBR, pledging to increase its capacity to 600 beds while significantly reducing costs.

GEO has long been active in Virginia politics. From 2003 to 2009, it donated $84,600 to state politicians, including more than $28,000 each to current governor Bob McDonnell and 2005 GOP gubernatorial nominee Jerry Kilgore. Both are former attorneys general and support tough sex offender laws.

Kilgore is now a partner at McGuire Woods Consulting, whose services GEO Care retained in January of 2011 to lobby on "matters related to Virginia's sexually violent predator program." As of June 2011, GEO had paid McGuire Woods $13,720.

Civil commitment is "the perfect market" for private detention companies, according to Michele Deitch, a criminal justice expert at the University of Texas. "No one's likely to want to close them down. The inmates probably aren't getting out. You've got the growing population feeding into these civil commitment centers. I would imagine private prison companies see it as a fairly safe area for growth."

These same factors have made civil commitment — which exist in 20 states and the District of Columbia — increasingly controversial. Mental health experts say it fails to provide adequate treatment, while the ACLU argues that that it undermines due process. As Hannah Rappleye reported, low release rates from civil commitment have led to spiraling costs across the country.

In Virginia, just 21 offenders treated at VCBR were released between the beginning of the program in 2003 and July of last year.

A recent report by Virginia's legislative oversight commission chronicles the rapid growth of the state's civil commitment program. Between 2003 and 2006, there were 38 civil commitments. But from 2007 to 2010, there were 228 commitments.

That growth swelled program costs. In 2005, VCBR received $5.8 million; in 2011, it spent $24.5 million, or about $91,000 per patient.

While the commission reported that privatization could lower costs, it also questioned whether private companies' "profit motive" was appropriate for a civil commitment program.

"The incentive to make a profit tends to encourage efficiency and quick decision-making that often results in lower costs," the commission explained. "However, the same profit motive could supersede treatment and safety considerations and lead to individuals being moved through treatment and then recommended for release before they are ready."

Experts differ on whether privatization could potentially improve treatment, with some pointing to GEO's spotty track record as cause for concern. In 2008, a convicted rapist escaped from the company's Florida Civil Commitment Center (authorities ultimately re-captured him). In 2010, GEO settled a $3 million lawsuit alleging improper strip searches.

Eric Janus, the dean of the William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota, calls civil commitment "a quintessential public function," adding, "there's something inherently worrisome about the state turning that over to a private company."

But given the right mix of talent and funding, Janus thinks it's conceivable that private companies could do better than states and adds, "it's hard to imagine anything that would make [state-run systems] worse."


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