AUGUSTA — During a public hearing before the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday afternoon not a single person stepped to the podium in support of a bill to keep sexual predators locked up in mental institutions after they serve their prison sentences if they are still considered a threat to society.
The bill, known as LD 1807, would require serial rapists and pedophiles to be placed in a residential program under Maine’s civil commitment law after their sentence is served. The legislation was modeled after a Kansas law, which initially was challenged on constitutional grounds before being upheld last last summer by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the wake of disturbing cases such as the rape and murder of JonBenet Ramsey in 1996, and the gruesome slaying last year of Jeffrey Curley, whose body was found in a concrete-filled tub in a Maine river, public pressure to punish sex offenders more severely has intensified. Tuesday’s silence was both a surprise and a disappointment to Rep. Debra Plowman of Hampden, who is sponsoring the legislation.
“I was blown away by the lack of support,” she said after the hearing. Plowman was especially disheartened because at least one woman with whom she had spoken, who had promised to be there, did not show. Plowman had personally lobbied women’s rights advocates and known supporters of tougher sexual assault laws.
“I’d like to put it down to last week’s weather,” she said, “and the lack of communication about whether [hearings] were being held or not.”
Two people opposed the bill: Dr. Joe Fitzpatrck, a clinical psychologist representing both the Department of Corrections and the Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services, and Nancy Bouchard, associate commissioner for adult corrections in the Department of Corrections.
Fitzpatrick said he shares Plowman’s concern regarding the dangers of sexually violent predators and the risks they represent. But, he said, these predators have an “element in their character” that separates them from the general population of sex offenders.
According to Fitzpatrick, the most recent medical literature concludes that “this subpopulation might not be treatable.” On the contrary, he said, treatment instead might improve their relationship skills, making them “better” predators.
Fitzpatrick also questioned the appropriateness of hospitalization for this population. Not only is the daily cost of mental health hospitalization high — $600 per day vs. $73 per day in prison — but treatment is considered a “right.” If predators are untreatable, he said, “don’t set yourselves up” to deliver services that will not be effective.
In place of hospitalization, Fitzpatrick suggested considering longer prison sentences.
Bouchard echoed many of Fitzpatrick’s comments, including imposing longer sentences, emphasizing that, in her opinion, a predator’s behavior is “distinctly criminal and requires incarceration in a secure facility.”
She also said that incarceration sends a message that offenders are criminals, accountable for their behavior, whereas hospitalization in a mental health facility suggests that predators are somehow “not responsible” for what they have done.
In her opening statement, Plowman said there are 700 to 800 sexual offenders on Maine’s streets on any given day. They are responsible to a probation officer, but receive little or no treatment. How many of those are sexual predators is not clear, she said. “Statistics on recidivism among sexual offenders are not kept in Maine,” she told the committee.
Throughout the hearing, several legislators asked Fitzpatrick and Bouchard to quantify the problem: not just how large is this population in Maine, but how are they being treated.
Fitzpatrick said that it is hard to know the number because there is no single definition of a predator. But he estimated that of the 450 sexual offenders behind bars in Maine, “perhaps 40 or 50 meet the criteria for psychotic behavior on the danger level we’re talking about.”
In terms of treatment programs, Bouchard said the Department of Corrections hired six sexual offender specialists last October who initially will deal with the highest-risk inmates.
A work session on LD 1807 will be held Tuesday, Jan. 27.