Retired state lawyer Bill Van Hook has a new challenge in front of him, but running the Special Commitment Center for violent sex offenders on McNeil Island is a welcome one.
The state Department of Social and Health Services facility holds about 240 civilly committed sex offenders.
Their criminal sentences are complete, but because they are deemed more likely than not to reoffend they are held indefinitely until they complete treatment and are cleared by a jury to return to society.
Van Hook, 67, worked for eight years in the state Attorney General’s Office, representing Washington in claims made by SCC residents. He was named CEO of the facility on the island west of University Place on April 25, after having been retired since June.
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The News Tribune talked with Van Hook about his plans at the center, his hopes for its residents and why he came out of retirement to run it. Van Hook’s comments were edited for space and clarity.
Q: Do you know if or when the Special Commitment Center is going to close?
A: It would take an act of the Legislature to close the SCC. I know of no plans whatsoever for it to close.
Q: Is there any effort to reduce the number of patients who are there?
A: I’m going to answer this carefully.
Yes, there’s always an effort to put people into treatment and move them through the treatment program, and then, when they are safe to release, to release them at first into one of the less-restrictive alternatives, and then, once they qualify and the courts agree, to move them into the community, and then release them totally once they no longer meet criteria for commitment.
We’re not saying, “Oh, we have to reduce our population by 10 percent this year or 20 percent next year,” or anything like that. It’s strictly clinically driven. It’s business as usual, basically.
Q: What are the criteria for commitment?
A: They are contained in Chapter 71.09 of the Revised Code of Washington.
Basically, a person has committed a crime of sexual violence, they’re unable to control their propensity to commit further crimes, and they suffer from a mental defect that causes them to commit the crimes.
Q: Are you going to be doing anything different in terms of how patients are treated there?
A: We’re always attempting to improve our treatment milieu, and I think there’s continuous improvement.
We’re committed to providing the most effective treatment possible to the extent that residents want to take part in treatment. We provide it to them, and we’ve been pretty successful at getting people into treatment.
Our treatment participation is going up. I believe it’s in the high 60s or low 70s percent right now. I think No. 1, people are seeing our residents move into those less-restrictive alternatives — those people are residents in our total confinement facility — and those residents are seeing that there is a way out, and so they’re signing up for treatment.
Q: Your participation rates were only at 37 percent in 2013. What have they done to increase participation rates?
A: No. 1, they’ve stabilized the treatment program so that the residents are saying there’s a treatment program that hasn’t changed, that nobody is basically moving the goalposts on them. And No. 2, they are seeing results, they’re seeing people move.
I think those are the drivers for the increase in treatment, just increasing the trust in the program, basically.
Q: What does success look like for you to say the facility is being successful?
A: No. 1, seeing residents engage in treatment and move through the treatment program.
I don’t think anybody here wants people to spend their entire lives at SCC. Those people who can be moved through the treatment program, that’s what we want to see. So I would say success in treatment, move them into the community when they’re safe and make sure the treatment provides for no reoffense when they’re out there — so we have safety and treatment.
Q: What brought you out of retirement?
A: No. 1, I got a call from my ex-boss at the Attorney General’s Office (Rochelle Tillett) asking if I would consider it.
It’s a job I almost applied for in 2012 and didn’t. It’s a job I’ve always wanted, because I represented the program for so long and I thought it was something I would like to do to make the program more successful in the future.
Q: For how long are you looking to run the SCC?
A: That’s a two-part question. I serve at the pleasure of the secretary (of Social and Health Services Pat Lashway), and the minute she doesn’t want me here, I’m gone, and I’ll go back to being a retired guy.
I guess there are some outside limits. My wife still works, so when she decides to retire, I probably will re-retire. And we haven’t decided when that’s going to be yet. It won’t be any time in the next couple years.
Q: What effects has the closing of the McNeil Island prison had on life at the SCC?
A: It’s more expensive to run the commitment center without the McNeil Island Corrections Facility here because we have to support all of the island infrastructure from this institution.
Granted, Correctional Industries does some of the island’s infrastructure work for us — they run the island’s ferries — but mainly it’s having to support the entire island from the Special Commitment Center.
I don’t think it’s made any difference to our residents or for our staff either. At one time, we did run the ferry system ourselves. That became more than we wanted to do, and the Legislature happily decided to shift it back over to Correctional Industries.
Q: How much does it cost to run the SCC per year?
A: Our yearly budget is right at $39 million.
We support around 300 individuals, some in the community, some on our own island and King County’s Secure Community Transition Facilities. We have about 240 in the total confinement system.
Q: How did you end up representing DSHS in lawsuits over the Special Commitment Center?
A: That was my job. I was hired to do that.
I worked for the attorney general here in Washington for 13 years. When I left practice I had been in practice for 35 years, so I worked in a number of places prior to that.
When the fellow who held my position before me — Tim Lang, who now runs the corrections division in the Attorney General’s Office — left the SCC position, I was asked to come and take over the SCC team.
So it was just a matter of the natural progression of me moving into that position, and I did that for eight years and three months.
Q: Did you seek that position out?
A: No. I had a discussion with Rochelle Tillett, the division chief of the Social and Health Services Division, and she thought it would be a good fit for me, and it was.
Q: What made it a good fit for you?
A: No. 1, I have a lot of expertise and experience in litigation, and I worked in law enforcement as a prosecutor early in my career.
It was work that interested me. I was the supervising attorney, and I was supervising people with less experience.
Q: Do you think there’s a conflict of interest in administering patients who you have fought against in court?
A: No. It’s a completely different role.
No. 1, I never pursued anyone and filed lawsuits against them.
My unit strictly defended the state of Washington in lawsuits brought by residents who for whatever reason thought they had some legal complaint against us at the Special Commitment Center. It was reactive. The program was established by law, and the Attorney General’s Office defends those kinds of programs.
The fact now that they’re out here, I’m not going to retaliate against them. I’m not going to hold it against them that they exercised their right to bring lawsuits.
I’m simply going to be running a program that they happen to be a resident of.
I can’t imagine there’s any conflict, and I don’t know why anyone would even think that.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: Sjan Talbot and I are both new on the management team, and we see a group of people who are absolutely committed to running the best civil commitment program in the United States, and that’s where we’re headed.
And we’re going to do it to the extent that we can do it.
We hope that everyone, all the residents out here, will engage in the treatment program and we can eventually move them through the program.