According to the head of the bluntly named Office of Violent Sex Offender Management, the agency has run out of room to house the worst of the worst sex offenders who have been sent to the state's controversial civil commitment program.
At least two convicts are currently finishing their sentences and are slated to enter the program by next week, agency director Marsha McLane warned the Senate Finance Committee yesterday. More than two dozen are set to enter the program by August. And there's nowhere to put them. McLane told lawmakers she's actively searching for places willing to house the offenders, but that "everyone I've called, no one has come up with a building we can move into."
The program, which keeps convicts labeled by the state as sexually violent predators confined to halfway houses and boarding homes, supposedly aims to treat offenders classified as having "behavioral abnormalities" -- a legal construct more than it is an actual diagnosed condition.
Dogged reporting over the past year by Anita Hassan and Mike Ward at the Houston Chronicle has unearthed a number of glaring problems with the program. While the courts have allowed civil commitment programs in 19 other states, critics charge the Texas version is purely punitive, meant to keep offenders in custody indefinitely and therefore could be unconstitutional. And while the program was created by lawmakers in 1999 as a way to treat and transition offenders safely back into the community, not a single offender has completed the program in its nearly 16-year history.
The state's only judge specifically tasked with handling civil commitment cases has been called out for disparaging the defendants who come before his court, calling them "psychopaths" and telling a crowd he kept a gun in his lap while at the bench because of offenders who were "way out there." That judge, Montgomery County's Michael Seiler, has since been recused from a number of civil commitment cases.
Meanwhile, more than half of the 360 men who have been ordered into the program since 2001 have been charged with technical rule violations and sent back to prison. At least six offenders have been sent back to prison for life. In a follow-up investigation this past weekend, the Chron's Ward and Hassan hinted at why that might be. Due to a lack of adequate funding or to piss-poor management at the agency level, depending on how you look at it, this "treatment" program essentially became a revolving door that shuffled convicts back into prison on minor technical violations as officials struggled to make room for all of the offenders sent their way by the courts. (Check out this chart, which shows how the number of convictions for rules violations essentially brought the program's total population down to around the levels that were actually funded by the legislature.)
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So this sex-offender housing crunch appears to stem from a couple of issues. The Lege never actually funded the program to handle the number of sexually violent offenders that were being taken in, while for years former agency head Allison Taylor woefully mismanaged the program (naturally, she's still in government, with the Health and Human Services Commission's inspector general's office).
It's also become fairly apparent that nobody really wants to house these people. The Chron first stumbled upon the Office of Violent Sex Offender Management last spring when people living in Acres Homes flipped after learning that some little-known sex-offender agency was quietly moving more than two dozen convicted sexual predators into their neighborhood without warning. Now the agency is scrambling to find another 140 beds by summer because two halfway houses have opted to drop out of the program -- they say they no longer want to contract with the agency to house sexually violent offenders, McLane told a senate committee Wednesday.
"We have no space for anyone else," McLane told lawmakers yesterday. "Unfortunately, the only option may be that we have to go to the street with any new offenders."
What could possibly go wrong with that?