In 1990, Washington state passed the nation’s first civil commitment law allowing courts to lock up and treat its most dangerous sex offenders well beyond their criminal sentences. Despite numerous constitutional challenges, 19 states followed Washington’s lead and adopted similar measures.
To be civilly committed in Washington, the court must find that the offender in question is a “sexually violent predator,” which under Revised Criminal Code 71.09 is defined as “any person who has been convicted of or charged with a crime of sexual violence and who suffers from a mental abnormality or personality disorder which makes the person likely to engage in predatory acts of sexual violence if not confined in a secure facility.”
Nearly 300 sex offenders reside in the Department of Social and Health Services-run Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island. The cost to detain each resident is roughly $150,000 per year, according to Assistant Attorney General Brooke Burbank.
Although their detentions are indefinite, some, with help from treatment, can move to less restrictive community settings and eventually gain freedom. But treatment is voluntary — only 37 percent of the residents actively participate. Others are discharged simply because they’re so old, sick or frail, they no longer qualify as violent predators.
Since the center’s founding in 1990, at least 32 civilly committed offenders have been unconditionally released into society. According to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, discharges from the facility outpaced admissions in 2012 for the first time.