The Legislature continues to grapple with the high costs of confining Washington’s worst sex offenders on an island, but one partial solution is already in place: Putting juveniles undergoing rehabilitation to work on the McNeil Island docks.
Crews of two to six boys from Lakewood’s Oakridge Community Facility put in a full work week helping shipwrights and engine mechanics at $7.16 an hour. State officials say they are kept away from sex predators at all times on the 4,400-acre island.
If they share a ferry ride between Steilacoom and the island, juvenile offenders ride on the top deck, sex offenders below. The teens have been working on the island since July.
“It’s a huge island and pretty easy to keep some separation there,” said Don Gauntz, the interim superintendent of the Special Commitment Center, the island facility that is home to nearly 300 people classified as sexually violent predators or being considered for that designation.
Until 2011, they shared the island with prison inmates, whose cheap labor helped keep local infrastructure maintained. But budget cuts closed the prison and left the state Department of Social and Health Services with full responsibility.
The island location adds about $6.6 million a year to the department’s costs for running the $43-million-a-year facility, according to one study – including firefighting, groundskeeping, road work and keeping eight boats running.
The department added mechanics and other staff, but last spring decided it needed extra labor to get barges ready for U.S. Coast Guard inspection.
That led to deploying boys from the Oakridge group home next to Western State Hospital, a transitional facility for youth on their way out of juvenile detention that allows them to attend regular high school, college or training programs and work in paid or volunteer jobs. Males as young as 16 and as old as 21 stay there, although most are 18 or younger.
Lawmakers are comfortable with having the teenagers on the island.
Republican Sen. Mike Carrell of Lakewood praised the program for teaching the boys valuable new skills in industrial technology. And Democratic Sen. Jeannie Darneille of Tacoma said she sees educational benefits, as long as lawmakers are “doing everything within our power to make 100 percent sure that they would not be harmed in any way because of the proximity issues.”
PUT SEX OFFENDERS TO WORK?
Facing even more need for workers, the center wants to be able to make more use of the sex offenders in its custody.
The vast majority of Special Commitment Center detainees are not deployed for outside work. Those who do garden, clear brush and place rocks for landscaping come from a halfway house next door to the main facility. It has about 10 residents who are deemed ready to start making a transition to the outside world.
Officials with DSHS say they are required to have one employee supervising each worker, limiting the size of crews.
The one-to-one ratio was put in place to keep prison workers’ families’ safe, they say. But homes on the island are no longer occupied, and DSHS officials are asking state lawmakers to let them relax the one-to-one ratio so larger crews of sex offenders can be sent out without so many supervisors.
Richard Broten, a resident at the halfway house, said returning to steady work is helpful and he would like to be able to do more – maybe even work in the island’s water treatment plant.
Ankle bracelets keep the staff informed about where residents are, and they carry an additional locator device when they venture out beyond the fences.
“You’ve got people who are with you all the time, so the risk of causing harm to somebody is minute,” Broten said.
Halfway house residents are allowed to work off the island under similar supervision, but the last time a resident succeeded in a job search was more than two years ago, Gauntz said. By contrast, one resident from a similar halfway house in Seattle is working and another is getting ready to start a job. Officials said that might be because King County has more night jobs available or because the area is less familiar with the commitment center.
Broten has applied for six jobs, including in custodial work and printing T-shirts, and been rejected from all of them. He said the main hurdle was the escort he was required to have by his side at all times, not his history, even though he was convicted in 1986 of molesting an 8-year-old relative and in 1990 of raping another relative, this one 10 months old.
Gauntz said they are learning skills that could help them secure jobs after release and earning money to support themselves. “We don’t believe a transient sex offender serves the state of Washington well,” he said.
The DSHS proposal to relax the one-to-one ratio would apply only to on-island work. Along with residents of the halfway house, it would allow work by residents of the main facility, but Gauntz said there are no plans to do that.
House and Senate committees have approved versions of the proposal. Senators added a caveat tha offenders must be out of sight and hearing of juvenile offenders.
Officials said they don’t plan to remove juvenile offenders if the measure passes because there’s enough work to go around.
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826
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