This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.
As state lawmakers grapple with how to close a $1 billion-plus budget gap, one place they’ve been looking for savings is the Special Commitment Center for violent sex predators on McNeil Island.
Some legislators want to save money by moving the SCC to a mainland site, cutting out the extra expense involved with ferrying to and from the island. But no community is clamoring to host 284 dangerous sex predators, and even if an existing facility could be found it likely would require expensive renovation and security upgrades.
A recent Seattle Times series suggests another strategy: Target the wasteful, uncontrolled legal costs associated with sex offenders either trying to avoid civil commitment to the SCC or to be released if they’re already there.
Those costs – about $12 million a year – eat up nearly a quarter of the SCC’s $50 million annual budget. That money – paid by the Department of Social and Health Services – could otherwise be spent far better on such priorities as education and human services.
The Times found that there’s little oversight over expenditures to defense attorneys and psychological “experts” – some of whom have questionable credentials and records. And because they’re paid by the hour, they have little incentive to dispose of cases in a timely fashion. They often drag on for years, with the defense seeking continuance after continuance. Often that means new lawyers and experts must be brought in to handle cases and re-evaluate offenders – and be paid for redoing work done by the previous attorneys and experts.
The state Office of Public Defense has proposed one idea: Let it take over the defense costs statewide. OPD says it could provide centralized financial oversight and do away with expensive hourly billing – saving taxpayers about $1 million annually. The agency could contract with defense lawyers to provide services for a defined yearly salary of up to $98,000.
That idea has caught the interest of state Sen. Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma, who serves on the OPD board. She has introduced SB 6493, which she told the Times “moves us forward to more accountability.”
Clearly action is needed to get costs under control. Incredibly, the “blank check” payout system has never been audited. That must happen – soon. The state’s most violent sex offenders are entitled to legal representation, but there’s nothing in the state or federal constitutions that says they should get the most expensive defense public money can buy.