OLYMPIA – Civil commitment of offenders who have been designated as sexually violent predators can be indefinitely extended for those whose crimes occurred when they were juveniles, the Washington Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday.
While the court had previously ruled that prior juvenile sexual offenses could be considered when offenders later committed a sexual crime as an adult, its latest ruling was the first in which they addressed whether crimes committed as a juvenile – with no additional sexual offenses as an adult – is sufficient as a foundation for the three-prong test for civil commitment.
In addition to being convicted or charged with a sexually violent crime, in order to be civilly committed as a sexually violent predator, the offender must also be deemed to be suffering from a mental abnormality, and it must be determined that the abnormality makes it likely that person will continue sexually predatory acts if released.
With its ruling, the court affirmed a Court of Appeals ruling that upheld a lower court’s ruling that denied the release of a man from the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island even though he’s completed his prison sentence for a rape and attempted rape he was convicted of as a teen.
Troy Belcher was convicted for a 1998 rape, when he was 13, of a 13-year-old girl, and served 65 weeks in juvenile rehabilitation. Two years later, while on parole, he assaulted another 13-year-old girl, and was later convicted of attempted rape and sentenced to nearly five years in prison. While in prison on that charge, he was charged with solicitation to commit murder and intimidating a witness after asking a fellow inmate about having his first victim killed, the court ruling notes. He pleaded guilty to the latter charge and was ultimately sentenced to 27 months in prison.
When he was eligible for release in 2007, the state petitioned for him to be designated a sexually violent predator, and was held in confinement at McNeil at that point. He was officially given the designation and civilly committed in 2011, and in 2015, the Cowlitz County Superior Court ordered that he continue to be indefinitely committed.
Belcher appealed, arguing that the decision violates due process because of the potential to permanently confine a person for a juvenile offense.
The court noted that state statutes dealing with sexually violent predators have processes in place to ensure anyone committed under the statute is restrained only as long as they are considered too mentally ill and sexually dangerous to be released.
“Far from punishing Belcher by imprisoning him for his childhood wrongs, our civil commitment statute ensures he remains in treatment until he no longer exhibits a future likelihood to commit sexual violence,” the court wrote. “Belcher was committed due to a diagnosis of a mental abnormality and his ongoing dangerousness to society, not simply his actions as a juvenile.”
Belcher also challenged that a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder was not sufficient for a finding of mental abnormality under the statute, and said that because he hadn’t committed any further sexually violent acts, the state could not prove he lacked control if released. The court rejected those arguments as well.
A phone message left with Travis Stearns, Belcher’s attorney, was not returned Thursday.