Pierce County shouldn’t be destination No. 1 for sex predators

They were strangers, and Pierce County took them in. They were in prison, and Pierce County visited them. They were short on change, and Pierce County offered them low-income housing.

And Pierce County got burned for it – once by the state Department of Corrections, more recently by the system that oversees violent sexual predators on McNeil Island. Again, the county needs legislative intervention.

This county has a high crime rate, not because of some genetic defect in the population, but because the state has historically released undue numbers of ex-cons into our neighborhoods.

The DOC used to treat Tacoma and Lakewood as perfect destinations for newly released inmates from state prisons. One attraction was the availability of low-rent housing. Over the decades and under the radar, the state created an infrastructure of work-release centers, halfway houses, group homes, felon-friendly landlords and mental health services for former prisoners.

As a result, Pierce County got far more than its share of those prisoners. Because many people who’ve committed major crimes relapse into criminality, the public wound up burdened with excessive criminal justice costs – plus the devastating personal costs inflicted on crime victims.

Eight years ago, local lawmakers secured passage of “fair share” legislation that has been steering former prison inmates back to their counties of origin. But the law only applied to conventional prisons, not to releases of sexual predators from the Special Commitment Center, which is run on McNeil Island by the Department of Social and Health Services.

A News Tribune investigation last summer found that DSHS had accelerated the pace of releases – and that Pierce County was once again getting more than its share. As of August, DSHS had released 41 detainees from the center in the previous 21/2 years – and 15 of them wound up here. In other words, 36 percent of the released sex predators had gone to a county with only 12 percent of the state’s population. Only three of the 41 had actually come from Pierce County.

The Legislature cannot erase the disparity simply by passing another fair-share law. That’s because judges approve the releases of sex predators, and lawmakers can’t micromanage judicial decisions.

But a new bill co-sponsored by seven South Sound senators would require that the process take county impacts into consideration as placement decisions are made. If an SCC detainee is not released to his home county, DSHS would have to explain why, in writing, to criminal justice officials of the county where he is released.

In some cases, there may be explanations. Predators, by definition, have committed crimes against multiple people. If those victims are clustered in, say, Yakima County, the perpetrator might best be released elsewhere to spare them terror.

But that doesn’t mean the terror should be disproportionately dumped on one county, namely Pierce. If there’s good reason not to return a detainee to Kennewick or Bellingham, the alternative of first resort shouldn’t be Lakewood or Tacoma.

Pierce County has more than carried its weight in accommodating the state’s least desirable citizens. The fact that it has the infrastructure to do it is a result of past injustice, not a reason to compound the injustice with a new wave of settlers from the Special Commitment Center.