Critics target Missouri sex offender treatment

Friday, January 17, 2014 | 11:38 a.m. CST; updated 4:28 p.m. CST, Saturday, January 18, 2014

ST. LOUIS — A Missouri sex crimes treatment program that has yet to release any offenders faces growing criticism from civil rights lawyers and patients who say being ordered to indefinitely participate in the mental health effort is little different than receiving a second prison sentence for the same crime.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Friday that nearly 200 sexually violent predators participate in the Sex Offender Rehabilitation and Treatment Services program, which began in 1999. None have successfully completed treatment in a program that costs the state $25 million annually, or more than $300 a day per patient. About 20 names are added to the patient list annually.

The newspaper obtained program records from a class-action civil rights lawsuit that seeks to improve treatment so the patients have a reasonable chance of being released. The records include a 2009 email from a state agency department head who spoke about the program's potential shortcomings in blunt terms.

"No one has ever graduated from (SORTS) and somewhere down the line, we have to do that or our treatment processes become a sham," wrote Keith Schafer, the leader of the state Department of Mental Health.

In a prepared statement, current Missouri Department of Mental Health Officials said the program meets nationally accepted standards for hospital care and is similar to programs in other states.

The statement said three residents have been placed in conditional release since 2009, demonstrating that "residents can progress through treatment, which addresses Dr. Schafer's concern."

But those three are not allowed to venture far from the Southeast Missouri Mental Health Center in Farmington, which sits next to a prison and residential area. They don't leave the program overnight, or without security measures such as alerting local police well in advance. The program also occupies dozens of beds at Fulton State Hospital.

The Post-Dispatch didn't specify how it received the records, which include documents that have not previously been publicly released in other lawsuits against the state program. The newspaper said it did not obtain the records from the American Civil Liberties Union, which is assisting in the class-action suit, or from Clayton-based law firm Armstrong Teasdale, where lawyer Richard Scherrer was appointed to the case on a pro bono basis by the U.S. District Court of Eastern Missouri in 2009.

Scherrer, who recently stepped down from the case for health reasons, declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation. But he and other plaintiff attorneys have argued that the program is a "publicly run disaster, where the blame for such a mess falls at the feet of the highest levels of state government."

Internal correspondence shows state officials exchanged similar concerns.

"We are (a) disaster waiting to happen," wrote Alan Blake, the former chief of operations at the program.

The program opened 15 years ago after a St. Louis County sex offender promised he'd molest children again to embarrass officials once his prison sentence was fully served. Now, he and others are held indefinitely after serving prison terms until their risk to re-offend falls to an acceptable level, which some argue will never happen. Nineteen other states have civil commitment laws for violent sexual predators.

Prosecutors believe it's a necessary program to protect some of society's most vulnerable people from sexual predators. In the initial stages of the first state programs, the U.S. Supreme Court approved civil commitment law for sex predators. Scores of lawsuits have since been filed by civil libertarians.

Some patients deemed low risk were committed at the end of their prison terms despite agreement from a state-sanctioned panel of mental health professionals that believed they shouldn't be in the program. Some have died while in the program.

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