Holding sex offenders on McNeil Island wastes public money

Special Commitment Center at McNeil Island on Wednesday, February 2, 2011.       (Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer)
Special Commitment Center at McNeil Island on Wednesday, February 2, 2011. (Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer) TNT

Washington has a two-step system to deal with the state’s worst rapists and child molesters: prison and civil commitment. Prison is used to punish; civil commitment ensures the worst of the worst offenders stay in custody after their prison time is up.

The Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island is home to 218 men who meet the legal definition of “sexually violent predator.” Many have been held there more than a decade.

Some view these residents as victims of a pathology they can’t control, individuals whose only hope of normalcy will take years of intensive therapy. Others see these, and all pedophiles, as the very face of intractable evil.

No matter how these wards of the state are perceived, their supervision and therapy are necessary, and don’t come cheap.

The aging island population (currently averaging nearly 52 years old) makes things even more expensive. Off-island medical appointments are increasing – there were 557 planned trips last year – and many residents inevitably will require a higher level of care. This pulls resources away from basic security and treatment needs at the SCC.

As News Tribune staff writer Alexis Krell reported last week, 32 emergency trips have already been made in 2018 – only 17 fewer than were made during all of 2017. Officials have designated a six-person staff team just to escort inmates on and off the island.

No wonder the center’s cost per resident this year is more than $185,000. The projected cost to run the entire island facility next year is nearly $50 million, about 20 percent more than in 2016.

(Here’s where we caution you not to speculate how many kids could be sent to college with that money, or how much road repair and infrastructure improvement could be purchased.)

Certainly a lockdown facility surrounded on all sides by water, ala Alcatraz, creates a feeling of high security. But it isn’t practical, and the state should do a serious analysis of the alternatives.

It should surprise no one that the infrastructure needs continual repair. In 2016, for example, residents filed a lawsuit claiming their drinking water, described as the color of mild coffee, was making them sick. Department of Health records show the facility was cited for drinking water violations as far back as 2006.

McNeil Island has served as a correctional facility since 1875, first for the feds and later for the state, but even with periodic updates, in matters both structural and therapeutic, its days may be numbered.

The SCC was taken out of the old penitentiary in 2004. Sixty million dollars later, it was a standalone facility touted to treat sex offenders, not punish them. The concrete buildings and alarm systems give the appearance of a prison, but residents have televisions and computers in their rooms.

Their involuntary commitment makes therapy an option and is a result of a 1990 state law mandating sex offenders deemed likely to reoffend be involuntarily committed after serving their prison sentences.

Washington was the first state to adopt it. Nineteen other states now have similar systems, though constitutionally the law walks a razor’s edge.

A lawsuit last year alleged poor treatment programs at McNeil Island and conditions that are more punitive than therapeutic; a settlement promises more individualized treatment for 27 residents suffering from mental illness or disability.

We don’t question the necessity of a middle ground between prison and community, and we certainly don’t advocate pinching pennies when it comes to public safety, but McNeil Island eats up a huge allocation of resources for a relatively small population.

It’s why back in 2011 the state closed down the island penitentiary – the last one remaining in the U.S.

We predict a similar fate for the commitment center. Under basic principles of economy of scale, it’s more expensive to run solo since the prison closed, and the SCC now must support all the island infrastructure, from ferry service to utilities.

Someone sitting in the governor’s seat or in the Legislature is going to figure out that maintaining this 27-acre compound that requires a 20-minute boat ride from the mainland is grossly inefficient.

Moving the facility will undoubtedly be met with staunch opposition, because no one wants sex offenders living nearby.

But it’s time for state officials to show good stewardship of the public purse, and take a good, hard look at other options.