Politics & Government

Pierce County lawmakers want released sex offenders sent back to county of origin

Seven of eight state senators who represent Pierce County are teaming up to try to keep sex offenders released from McNeil Island from clustering in one place.

Lately, offenders have disproportionately gone from the island lockup to live in mainland Pierce County.

An analysis last summer by The News Tribune found the county had received 15 of the at least 41 detainees released from the Special Commitment Center since 2012, even though just three of the 41 originally were committed in Pierce.

Local lawmakers hope that trend will change, but they haven’t come up with a way to enforce their wish, as proposed legislation they introduced Wednesday makes clear.

“This is less a demand than it is a request,” said Sen. Jeannie Darneille, the Tacoma Democrat taking the lead. “It’s a process we’re asking the courts to go through in this bill.”

Lawmakers mandated in 2007 that prison inmates released to state supervision go to their county of origin, barring special circumstances. But the Legislature doesn’t have the kind of authority over the judicial branch that it has over the Department of Corrections, so Darneille’s proposal would require a judge only to “consider whether it is appropriate” to release a detainee to his or her county of origin.

Sex offenders detained at the McNeil Island commitment center are former prisoners who have completed their sentences but whom courts deem “sexually violent predators” likely to return to violence. Offenders are placed in indefinite civil commitments that, for some, may never end.

But increasingly, many offenders win release: more than 100 over a decade, not counting those moved to transitional facilities on the island and in King County.

The restriction proposed by lawmakers would apply to a particular kind of release: a “community less-restrictive alternative.” Another transitional step toward total freedom, it’s available to offenders who participate in treatment.

Courts approve the placement, usually in a group home. The Department of Corrections has a say as well, and supervises the offenders in their new homes. Offenders are tracked with GPS devices.

Of 16 detainees ordered into one of those releases from 2012 to mid-2014, none came from Pierce County, but nine ended up there – more than half.

Mental-health services tend to cluster around Western State Hospital, and some offenders may have nowhere else to go. But the local concentration didn’t happen in previous years, and it’s unclear whether it is a statistical blip.

The measure doesn’t address a larger category of “unconditional releases.” Those generally happen when courts decide a detainee no longer meets the legal definition of a sexually violent predator. Those released unconditionally are sometimes required to be supervised and often required to register as sex offenders at their new homes, but it’s largely left up to the offenders to decide where to live.

Unconditional releases have shot up in recent years, many of them elderly sex offenders no longer seen as a threat for violence. Pierce County has received a bit more than its share of those lately, but less than its share over a longer window.

A committee expected to get first crack at the proposal is likely to advance it to the next step in the legislative process. One of its backers, Tacoma Republican Sen. Steve O’Ban, leads the committee, and supporters O’Ban, Darneille and Federal Way Republican Sen. Mark Miloscia make up a majority of the panel.

Also signing on to the bill are Sens. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville; Steve Conway, D-Tacoma; Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, and Pam Roach, R-Auburn. The other senator who represents a piece of the county, Port Orchard Republican Jan Angel, was reviewing the bill, Darneille said.