California Civil Commitment for Sexual Offenders: Is it working and who benefits?

California Civil Commitment for Sexual Offenders: Is it working and who benefits?
Many sexual offenders are forced to live in homeless encampments like this when they are released from prison. But many others are held, against their will, for an indefinite period of time in a mental health hospital near Coalinga. Jean Kennedy’s article looks into this troubling situation.

By Dr. Jean Kennedy

Jean Kennedy

Dr. Jean Kennedy is the host of the “Health Comes at a Premium” segment of Valley Black Talk on KFCF. Contact her at KFCF/News Article, 1449 N. Wishon Ave., Fresno, CA 93744, Attn.: Dr. Jean Kennedy.

During my radio show (Valley Black Talk, “Health Comes at a Premium,” on KFCF) in January, I did a special program on letters written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he was arrested in Alabama. I had just reminded my listeners of those famous words, “an injustice to one is an injustice to all,” when I received a call from listeners at Coalinga State Hospital. The callers claimed that they were being held on false evaluation assessments as having a mental disorder to label them as sexually violent predators (SVPs).

Since my January radio show, I have received much mail from patients at Coalinga State Hospital, which is under the California Department of Mental Health (DMH), explaining how the state is violating the civil and human rights of many men being held on a civil commitment as sex offenders. These individuals feel that an injustice has been done to them.

I proceeded to investigate the civil commitment procedures. It appears that individuals are being “warehoused” who have served their prison sentences and are then being assigned to the DMH for indefinite confinement at Coalinga State Hospital.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation appears to be responsible for releasing higher-profile sex offenders back into the community while releasing those with lower-level offenses into the custody of the DMH, which, in turn, places a “civil commitment” on them. Coalinga State Hospital gets a bed filled with a less threatening person and receives $200,000-$270,000 per person to provide minimal supervision.

Following my interviews with patients at Coalinga State Hospital, it appears that the more serious repeat multiple sexual violent offenders are sent to the Parole Department. However, instead of releasing individuals with lesser offenses back into society with a fitted GPS monitor or into the custody of the Parole Department, they are assigned to Coalinga State Hospital.

This situation presents a public safety issue. We have created an unsafe community and possibly violated the rights of those being held under a false diagnosis simply to keep hospital beds filled.

Proposition 83 increased the number of penal code sexual offenses and certain juvenile sexual offenses. It extended the minimum sentences for sex crimes, eliminated “good time” credits for habitual sexual offenders and increased parole terms to up to 10 years for the most severe sex crimes.

Possibly the most significant change to the SVP statute legislation was the change in the commitment period from two years to an indeterminate period unless the courts find that the individual no longer meets the definition of an SVP. The SVP patient can still petition the court to be conditionally or unconditionally released on an annual basis, and the court can choose not to hear the case “if [there is] insufficient evidence to suggest that the individual’s condition has changed significantly.”

Two additional changes were mandatory lifetime GPS monitoring for registered sex offenders and the prohibition against sex offenders living within 2,000 feet of a school or park. Homelessness among registered sexual offenders has subsequently increased 800% due to the residency prohibition (Santa Rosa Press).

There are a number of problems in both the structure and operation of the SVP system. Coalinga State Hospital is one of those problem areas. The number of referrals to the DMH for screening and evaluations had risen tenfold by January 2009. Prop 83 resulted in a $27 million increase in cost for evaluators ( Doctors were paid $3,500 per initial evaluation for SVP commitment as of January 2009. Two to four initial evaluations are required for each potential SVP, and it takes court preparation, testimony and travel time, which pays out at a rate of approximately $200 per hour.

The involuntary commitment of sexual offenders to state hospitals in California was intended to “help cure sexual offenders in a shorter time than they would serve in prisons as well as to protect society against the release of sexual offenders who had not been cured within the maximum incarceration sentence” (American Psychiatric Association, 1999).

The Sexual Offender Treatment and Evaluation Project (SOTEP), which is funded by the legislature, started in 1981. The SOTEP was limited to about 50 sexual offenders recruited from state prisons at any one time. This program provided prisoners with an opportunity to spend the final 22 months of their sentence receiving treatment in a hospital setting rather than in prison. This change in the law resulted in an increase in the average number of referrals to the DMH for SVP review from approximately 50 per month to about 600 per month.

The legal process for SVP commitment status was implemented in 1996 and is a post-incarceration civil commitment process. It is implemented by the DMH as the sexual offender commitment program (SOCP). To determine and process an individual, a standardized assessment protocol determines whether an inmate is an SVP. Independent evaluators, either psychiatrists or psychologists, are contracted by the DMH to concur that a person has a “mental disorder.” It is this diagnosis that places an individual at Coalinga State Hospital for an indefinite time.

The SVP hearing is a civil procedure and requires a trial by a judge or jury. For the patient’s status of SVP to change, the jury must unanimously decide beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual meets all the SVP criteria. Currently, there are elderly men, one in his 80s, and several who are disabled awaiting a hearing. These individuals feel that they do not pose a danger to society, yet they cannot get a hearing to be released and reenter society (conditional or unconditional release, even if it means that they wear a monitor).

Meanwhile, we continue to pay taxpayer money to keep these men locked up at a hospital. The patients at Coalinga State Hospital are confined to be treated by the DMH until they either no longer meet the definition of an SVP or they can be safely and effectively treated in the community.

The DMH uses the SOCP to implement the SVP civil commitment status. It is known as a phase or treatment program and is “voluntary” because the SVPs are civilly, rather than criminally, committed. It is said that not too many SVP individuals consent to participate in the phases of the SOCP. Many SVP individuals and their attorneys often cite the low treatment participation rate as evidence that the DMH program is not successful.

We have a large number of homeless persons in Fresno, and several are previous sex offenders. Which ones pose a danger to society and which ones are being managed? The civil commitment seems not to be working (except that Coalinga State Hospital makes a lot of money from taxpayers). Making sex offenders who have been released from prison homeless is also not working.

What do we want to accomplish from this conversation?

  • The State of California must look into how it is wasting taxpayer money on treatments that might not be working on a large scale.
  • The Coalinga Hospital must become an advocate for its patients rather than a warehouse of patients.
  • Our legislators must evaluate the sexual predator/sexual psychopath laws to reduce barriers to good treatment programs and ensure better monitoring.
  • We must determine what society can do to create healthy and safe living environments.
  • We must support programs such as the one at Fresno Pacific University’s Peace Center that integrates sex offenders back into society with the proper support systems.
  • We must change the labeling of sexually violent predators.


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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