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03-16-06 Ohio House OKs bill limiting sexual offenders

By Tim Cox

  A proposed new law would allow prosecuting attorneys to have some sexual offenders committed to mental institutions after they serve their prison sentences.

  The bill in the Ohio Legislature, sponsored by Rep. Keith Faber, R-Celina, passed the House this week and awaits a vote in the Senate. If it passes in that chamber and Gov. Bob Taft signs it, the bill would become law.

  As proposed, the bill also would allow prosecutors to seek civil commitment for violent sex offenders found incompetent to stand trial or who are found not guilty by reason of insanity. In all cases, sending a sex offender to a mental institution would require a separate legal process, including a trial before a judge.

  The bill applies only to people labeled sexual predators, the most serious legal designation for sex offenders. Sex offenders released from prison who face commitment to a mental institution would have their cases managed by the Ohio Department of Mental Health. The department would review the status of each offender one year after they are placed in an institution and every three years after that.

  Faber said the bill was not a direct result of a Mercer County case where an accused sex offender deemed incompetent to stand trial was moved from jail to the Mercer County Home, against the wishes of many county officials and residents. The bill was pending in the House before that case unfolded, he said.  The bill actually is aimed mostly at people convicted of sex crimes before the 1997 law that set up the system that allows judges to label offenders based on the seriousness of their offenses. Many of those inmates will be released in the near future, with no registration process required.

  The new law would be applied to past sex offenders who would meet the criteria for today's labeling and registration requirements.

  "Ever since I've been in the Legislature, we have increased the penalties on the front end of these crimes," Faber said. "Now we're looking to do something on the back end."

  State and federal studies show recidivism rates among sex offenders to be as high as 50 percent. That means about half of convicted sex criminals are likely to re-offend, most of them within two years of being released from prison, Faber said.

  "That's a 50-50 chance they're going to come back to your neighborhoods and offend again," Faber said. "Treatment is not a a viable option for the worst of the worst."

  A non-partisan fiscal analysis of the bills says the new program would cost the state as much as $8.8 million in additional housing and treatment costs just during the first year. Projected costs over the first five years of the prospective law would be $58 million.

  Faber said his bill includes no direct funding stream. If approved the law would not take effect until near the end of the two-year state budget cycle and the state Department of Mental Health and state Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections should be able to initially fund the program from their existing budgets, he said.

  The exact costs are difficult to determine, Faber said, because one must consider that nearly half of sexually violent offenders will end up back in prison, which also costs taxpayers money.

  The bill is modeled after a Kansas law that already has faced a constitutional challenge and been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Seventeen states have similar laws on the books to commit sex offenders to mental institutions after their release from prison, Faber said.

  Lumping violent sex offenders with mentally ill patients is not meant to stigmatize mental illness, Faber said. In fact, 99 percent of mentally ill people are not criminals and those people actually are more likely to be the victims of a crime.

  Sex predators committed to mental facilities would be kept at "locked forensic units," Faber said, not mingling with non-violent patients.

  The bill is now being studied by the state Senate's Judiciary and Criminal Justice Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana. The bill could be merged with other similar bills pending in the Statehouse, Faber said.

  -- The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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