Politics & Government

Many sex offenders stay in Pierce County after release from island

More than 100 Washington sex offenders have won release from the state’s Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island.

But fewer than half go back where they came from, and increasingly, many are staying in Pierce County.

Take Douglas Ray Higgins, convicted in 1991 of a Snohomish County rape committed while on parole for a 1984 King County rape conviction.

An expert later concluded Higgins was especially dangerous because his crimes dated back to age 13, he had committed some at knife point and his victims’ fear and struggling had sexually stimulated him, according to court records.

But at the SCC, the state’s lockup for sexually violent predators, he participated in treatment and won freedom.

Higgins, 54, lives in Lakewood.

Since 2012, courts have released at least 15 commitment-center residents to Pierce County. The county received more than 36 percent of the 41 detainees freed in that 21/2-year period — even though it had sent just three of them, 7 percent, to the SCC.

No other county in that period received more than one extra detainee above what it had sent, according to a News Tribune analysis of release data from the state Department of Social and Health Services, which runs the commitment center.

It’s a reversal of years in which Pierce County received far less than its share of offenders. Those years help balance out the numbers over a longer span of time, giving Pierce County a more equitable 18 percent of detainees freed since 2005 compared to the 13 percent who had come from Pierce.

State authorities say decisions about where people live are largely out of their hands — up to the courts or, in most cases, the offenders themselves.

Authorities have not been able to point to anything that changed that would explain the increase. It could be little more than a blip. Or it could be that as releases have sharply increased — to the point where in 2012 for the first time they outnumbered admissions — it has become harder not to cluster them.

“No one county should be the dumping ground for offenders from across the state,” Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said.

That principle is written into state law — for other offenders.

When inmates leave prison to go on probation, the state Department of Corrections must send them back to the counties where they were convicted, barring special circumstances. Pierce County lawmakers secured that requirement in 2007.

But the SCC isn’t a prison, and its residents aren’t inmates: they’re detained under civil commitment laws.

DSHS and Corrections maintain that the residents don’t fall under the “fair share” law, even though many are returning to Corrections supervision upon their release.

Lindquist is talking to Pierce County lawmakers about a change. One of them, state Sen. Jeannie Darneille of Tacoma, said she’s preparing a “clarifying” proposal for the 2015 legislative session to extend the Corrections restrictions to SCC releases.

Darneille, a member of the Senate’s Democratic minority, acknowledged sending the offenders back home might not be easy.

The Corrections Department says it’s best not to compel offenders back to their counties of origin, which tends to be home to their victims or witnesses to their crimes.

“You’ve got people who’ve committed multiple offenses,” said Kim Acker, the Corrections Department’s civil commitment program administrator. “To control where they go and say you must return to where your victim lives, or victims, when a lot of them were put through multiple trials ... those victims and witnesses are not normally very pleased.”

HARD TO FIND HOUSING

The fact is, hardly anyone is pleased when a sex offender shows up in the neighborhood.

And that goes double for former SCC residents, who the state has proved or tried to prove are “sexually violent predators” likely to return to predation if not confined.

“It’s really, really difficult to find housing for my clients,” Seattle defense attorney Ken Chang said.

Government housing is mostly off-limits. Private landlords tend to want nothing to do with them.

Many offenders must stay out of buffer zones around schools and day cares. And once the news media reports on one of them moving in — well, cue the pitchforks and torches.

Sometimes, though rarely, offenders are released to homelessness.

“Are we making the community any safer by making them live on the street?” asked Lesta Rogers, who owns Pierce County re-entry housing for inmates. “I don’t think so, and yet I do understand how the community, how they must feel.”

Rogers has eight rentals she said have housed two former SCC residents in the past.

Given the scarcity of locations, when an offender finds a place to live, it can become popular.

Higgins lives in the same block of Lakewood’s 150th Street as another detainee released in 2012, Robert Michael Buffam, according to Pierce County’s sex-offender registry. The registry describes Buffam, 42, as having sexually assaulted a 4-year-old boy as a teenager in Vancouver, Washington.

A block of South Fawcett Avenue southwest of the University of Washington Tacoma is the registered home of three former commitment center residents and nine other sex offenders.

Seven more sex offenders live within a quarter-mile radius.

Industrial areas, “where there isn’t a neighborhood element,” are among the few places sex offenders can live, Rogers said.

Among the residents in the South Fawcett block are three former SCC residents convicted of crimes in King County:







MORE TO PIERCE

All three of the men on that block were released by courts to a “community less restrictive alternative.” Usually in group homes, offenders in those placements take a transitional step toward more complete freedom. To get there, they generally must have participated in treatment on the island and made gains.

Under Corrections supervision, they must must wear GPS devices, undergo treatment and risk being sent back to McNeil Island for misbehavior. Courts approve their residences, with input from Corrections.

Just one of at least 26 residents with those conditional releases since 2005 came from Pierce County, yet the county has received nine of them: nearly 35 percent. All nine came to the county in the past 21/2 years.

Some since have left supervision or returned to the SCC. As of Aug. 15, Pierce County and more populous King County had an equal number still on supervised release: four apiece, according to the Corrections Department.

Thurston and Snohomish counties each had one. The rest of the state: zero.

More numerous than the supervised releases are the “unconditional releases,” which happen when a judge decides someone no longer meets the legal definition of a sexually violent predator.

That doesn’t mean they’re not watched; many must register as sex offenders and some are on Corrections-supervised probation in connection with their previous prison sentences.

At least 85 unconditional releases have occurred since 2005, not counting those sent to other custody such as a prison or Western State Hospital. Pierce County has received a bit less than its share of former detainees — 10 detainees, or nearly 12 percent, compared with the 13, or 15 percent, the county contributed.

The ranks of detainees released unconditionally have swelled in recent years, partly because of the graying of the population and research that has found little tendency by elderly sex offenders to commit more violent crimes.

At least two former SCC residents have died in recent years.

WHY PIERCE?

Those who stay in Pierce County might do so partly to take advantage of an abundance of mental-health services clustered in the area because of state institutions such as the SCC and Western State in Lakewood, Lindquist said.

Pierce County also has public transportation and other urban amenities without the higher cost of living of the Seattle area, he noted.

“Part of this is economics, in that landlords can buy a house to rent to sex offenders less expensively here than in, say, King County,” Lindquist said.

It might be as simple as detainees having nowhere else to go. They frequently don’t have family or job connections elsewhere, DSHS officials said.

The safest bet is for them to go to a place where they have some kind of support system to draw on, said Chang, the Seattle defense attorney.

“By creating these resources, giving them something to live for,” he said, “then you’re reducing the risk.”

The state has no plans to encourage a more spread-out network of homes.

“It’s not really our responsibility or DOC’s responsibility to push private industry to build certain types of facilities,” DSHS spokesman John Wiley said. “That’s kind of up to private industry. If they see there’s a need there, they’ll do that; they’ll build those.”

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