Don’t dump the state’s sex predators in Pierce County

The state’s release of sex predators in Pierce County is a classic case of no good deed going unpunished.

In 1998, Washington officials decided to move the Special Commitment Center from Monroe, in Snohomish County, to McNeil Island. Pierce County thus wound up doing what no other place in the state was willing to do: providing a home to the hundreds of sex offenders confined at the center.

For this unwelcome privilege, the county is now getting far more than its share of the SCC’s “graduates.”

To understand the injustice, one must first understand who is confined at the Special Commitment Center.

“Sex offenders” is a spooky but overbroad term. It includes career rapists, but also includes people who may have committed much lesser crimes many years ago and not repeated them since.

The Special Commitment Center was created (at Monroe) in 1990 for a small fraction of the state’s sex offenders, those formally designated as sexually violent predators. Under the Community Protection Act of 1990, these are perpetrators of especially despicable crimes who are especially likely to repeat them.

One of the law’s chief inspirations was Earl Kenneth Shriner, who sexually mutilated and tried to kill a 7-year-old Tacoma boy in 1989. He’d been locked up for an earlier sex crime; as his release date approached, he made detailed plans for kidnapping and torturing new victims. Once he was free, the law had no hold on him, and he proceeded to act out his fantasies.

The Community Protection Act allowed a judge or jury, after due process and trial, to decide whether such a convict was a predator with a high risk of seeking out new victims. If the court made such a finding, the convict would go straight from prison to detention at the Special Commitment Center.

Everyone formally committed to the SCC has thus at one point been found – beyond a reasonable doubt – likely to reoffend. At the time of commitment, they were among the most dangerous of all sex offenders.

There was some comfort in the fact that McNeil Island is surrounded by deep, frigid water. Offenders could not escape to the mainland.

They could, however, be released to the Pierce County mainland once they were deemed less of a threat. That’s exactly what the state has been doing, disproportionately, in the last two-and-a-half years.

DSHS, which runs the SCC, began setting people free from the center at higher rates after 2005. The releases began as a trickle, and the South Sound wasn’t getting an undue share. But the numbers have increased in recent years, and Pierce County has clearly become the path of least resistance.

As documented by The News Tribune’s Jordan Schrader on Sunday, 41 detainees have been released since the beginning of 2012, and 15 of them landed in Pierce County. That’s 36 percent of the total released to a county with 12 percent of the state’s population. Only three of those SCC graduates had originated in Pierce County.

We’ve seen this movie before. The state Department of Corrections once routinely used Pierce County as a dumping ground for released prisoners, which produced an enduring increase in the area’s violent crime rate. Then lawmakers enacted a “fair share” bill that now requires the department to send prisoners back to their counties of origin.

There’s a loophole in the bill, though: It didn’t apply to DSHS or the Special Commitment Center. Predictably, Pierce County is being saddled with an unfair share of a particularly scary breed of offender.

The obvious remedy: Expand the law to the Special Commitment Center. The sooner the better.