Texas trying revamped sex offender treatment program

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LITTLEFIELD, Texas (AP) – Outside of a struggling West Texas town, about a mile from the high school, sits a one-story brick building, its perimeter fencing topped with razor wire. Since last fall, it’s been home to some of Texas’ most violent sex offenders.

The former prison re-opened after the state overhauled its civil commitment program for convicted sex offenders following a state investigation that found the previous operation was poorly managed and ineffective for 16 years. The men had been scattered in halfway houses across Texas, and no one in the program had successfully completed it and re-entered the broader community.

It’s at this facility, about 40 miles from Lubbock, where officials believe the in-patient treatment protocol will yield better results for those confined here by court order due to its more intensive and therapeutic nature, according to Marsha McLane, the top official with the Texas Civil Commitment Office.

“We expect people to graduate … and get out on their own and do what they need to do to be safe and law-abiding citizens,” McLane said. “This is not a warehouse for sex offenders.”

Critics, however, contend the new facility is just that. They also say the private operator is interested in only profit, not rehabilitation. Plus, the program’s overhaul will be compared against those in 19 other states and the District of Columbia, all of which permit civil commitment of convicted sex offenders who are considered likely to commit new sex crimes after finishing prison sentences.

Minnesota’s civil commitment program was ruled unconstitutional a year ago, and a class-action lawsuit called it tantamount to a life sentence. Seeing some similarities, Texas lawmakers closely watched that case and worked to correct problems in its own program.

About 210 men ages 27 to 78 are in the Texas Civil Commitment Center, which, though no longer a prison, looks like one with its heavy metal doors and drably painted cinderblock walls.

“It feels like a prison, but I don’t view it as prison,” said 52-year-old Alex Barrera, twice convicted for indecency with a child but is in the program’s final treatment tier. “This is the next step to get back into the community.”

The residents attend group treatment sessions six hours a week, double what they did in halfway houses, and receive individual therapy at least once a month, officials say. The program has four levels of treatment inside the facility, and the higher you go, the more privilege you get; tier three residents can have a calls-only cellphone and work paid jobs within the facility.

After a resident completes the fourth tier, McLane determines whether they’re ready for the fifth – going back to the county where they were convicted to live and work under supervision by a case manager. She’s approved two moves, one for a man in Fort Worth and another in Houston.

Before lawmakers overhauled the program, about half of those civilly committed were sent back to prison for violating one or more of about 200 treatment or supervision rules. Now, McLane said, there are only such four rules, including contacting their victim and tampering with the GPS monitors they wear.

The facility is run by Nashville, Tennessee-based Correct Care Solutions, a for-profit prison company that signed a two-year, $24 million contract last year after most of the state’s halfway houses refused to renew their contracts because they had run out of room for more offenders.

The deal with the state has been a mixed blessing for Littlefield, a town of nearly 6,300 where cotton production drives the economy. Though people like 80-year-old Don Martinez are concerned about having sex offenders in the same town where his granddaughter lives – “I don’t like it, but there’s nothing I can do about it,” he said – the facility has brought in about 100 jobs and will save the city about $750,000 in annual debt payments, which Littlefield covered since the prison closed in 2009.

Critics say Correct Care, which provides medical and behavioral health services to about 250,000 people nationwide and also runs a civil commitment operation in Florida, is only interested in profit.

“We feel that as a treatment provider they’re totally unqualified because they are a private prison company at heart and the profit motives only incentivize cutting corners and compromising the quality of care,” said Cate Graziana of the Austin-based nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, which works nationally to end for-profit prison operations.

Correct Care spokesman Jim Cheney responded to that accusation in an email, saying its patient care is “unparalleled in this industry.”

Rehabilitation is possible if treatment is done appropriately, but doing so in institutional settings tends to not be as successful as community halfway houses, said Maia Christopher of the Oregon-based Association of Treatment of Sex Offenders. However, she said, in-patient institutional programs followed by supervised community placement, like Texas’ new setup, does increase effectiveness.

“It is helpful to have people sort of being in the environment that they’re going to be in so that they can practice skills and you can sort of monitor what’s going on with real-time kind of feedback,” Christopher said.

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