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Some answers to questions on civil commitment

What is “civil commitment”?

A process to indefinitely detain “sexually violent predators” after their prison sentences. Legally, it’s similar to committing someone to a mental hospital against that person’s will.

How common is it?

Of the roughly 800 sex offenders released from Washington prisons each year, the state typically tries to commit 24 people. After 16 years, there are 255 sex predators in the program.

Why them?

Under the law, a sex offender must suffer from a hard-to-control mental problem that makes it “more likely than not” he or she will re-offend. The crime must also be predatory, meaning that the victim was a stranger, casual acquaintance or someone befriended to victimize.

Who makes the final decision?

A judge or 12-person jury. If it’s a jury, the decision must be unanimous.

How often do they say no?

On average, the state loses about one in five cases. In Spokane County, the state has lost just one of 9 such cases since 1990.

Is this constitutional?

So far, the 1990 law has survived all court challenges. A civil-rights lawsuit, however, forced changes to make it easier for treated predators to graduate to “less-restrictive alternatives.”

Where do the sex predators live?

The vast majority – 243 of them – live in a $61 million secure compound on McNeil Island. The rural island’s other major feature: a sprawling state prison. The island is accessible only by ferry.

Will they ever be released?

Some will. After treatment, a handful of sex predators have earned release to halfway houses on the mainland.

Why does the law let them out, anyway?

In most cases, because they were sentenced years ago. Tougher laws took effect in 2001. Today, most violent sex criminals serve a fixed prison term; then they can petition for release. But the state can say no. If an inmate is an ongoing threat to the public, he or she can be kept in prison for life.

What if they’re already out of prison?

In rare cases, state attorneys will seek civil commitment for sex offenders who are believed to again present an imminent public threat. One such offender, for example, was recently caught leaving sexually explicit invitations at playgrounds.