More McNeil Island sex offenders gain freedom

A rising number of graying detainees confined at center deemed safe to enter halfway houses, eventually rejoin outside world

Staff writerFebruary 24, 2013 

For the nearly 300 sex offenders locked away on McNeil Island, there is no marking the days on the calendar. Their detentions have no end date.

But increasingly, a stay on the island isn’t necessarily a life sentence.

Releases from the state’s Special Commitment Center have sharply increased in recent years, and last year, for the first time, they outnumbered admissions.

That’s largely because of evolving research on the tendency of sex offenders to return to crime, according to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy — including new conclusions about aging offenders, even as the island’s population grows grayer.

Out of the more than 417 who have passed through the center’s doors since its founding in 1990, at least 86 offenders have gained their freedom, including:

 • John Mathers, 60, convicted of sexually assaulting two girls and a boy in 1972. He also pleaded guilty in 1981 to raping a woman he met on a bus. He won release in 2008 to Pierce County after years of treatment and supervision.

 • Casper Ross, 50, convicted in 1980 of sexually abusing a teenage girl he befriended at an arcade; and in 1987 of raping a girl he grabbed while she walked to her bus stop. Experts said he no longer met the criteria for commitment, according to prosecutors, and he was released in Pierce County in 2010.

 • Gary Cherry, 54, convicted of raping or trying to rape three female strangers in 1979, 1986 and 1990. A court resisted experts’ conclusions that he no longer met the criteria until 2012, when an appeals court ordered him released. He left to live in Shelton.

Each of those had finished his prison sentence, only to be confined again under a state scheme for forced commitment of people classified as sexually violent predators. A jury decides whether offenders meet that legal definition, in part by deciding if they are more likely than not to commit more crimes if freed.

The only residents to be let out of the Special Commitment Center without court conditions in the center’s first decade and a half were those who had never been committed in the first place but were detained there awaiting a court decision. There have been 54 such releases to date, according to the public policy center.

The other 32 releases were of offenders who had been committed, but whose status as a sexually violent predator was revoked by a court.

That was unheard of before 2005, the year Phillip McClatchey, a convicted child molester who is now 86, was released to Seattle. But since then, it has become common.

“I think in recent years, the residents have gained confidence that there was a way out,” Special Commitment Center interim Superintendent, Don Gauntz said.

Indeed, in interviews with The News Tribune, several offenders expressed hope for eventual release. “I believe it’s fully going to happen,” Jim Farnan, 41, said this month while landscaping a garden at the island’s halfway house.

Farnan was convicted in 1996 of attempting to rape his landlady. He has already taken a potential step toward release by moving to the step-down facility, marking his advance in therapy. Of his move to the halfway house, he said: “It’s hard to get out here. A lot of mountains have to be moved.”

More than a decade ago, trying to demonstrate to the courts that they were not just a holding facility for predators, the agency created halfway houses on the island and on the mainland in Seattle’s industrial area. A growing number of offenders have cycled through those facilities or into supervised home placement, which the center says is contributing to more frequent releases.

At the same time, admissions to the $43-million-a-year center have steadily declined as tougher sentencing laws have taken effect. Many potential offenders who might have been sent there after prison aren’t getting out of prison in the first place.

AGING POPULATION

It is not a coincidence that the 32 formerly committed offenders are a graying group, with an average age upon release of 58. Research in recent years has found very low rates of reoffending by rapists older than 60 and child molesters older than 70, the public-policy institute says.

Courts decide whether offenders are released, but they are informed by the opinions of experts from the Special Commitment Center, prosecutors and the defense. A commonly used 10-point scale that uses factors such as the types of offenses and victims to measure risk often is part of the equation. For example, offenders scoring above 6 on the scale are considered more likely than not to re-offend within 15 years, according to the public-policy institute, which says risk scores at the center have overall been on the rise in recent years.

When the scale was updated a few years ago, the role of age was changed. For example, turning 60 now shaves three points off a score.

More and more island residents exceed that age. The average age of the population under the commitment center’s authority is now nearly 50, nine years older than in 1995 when the population was less than a tenth the size.

After 60, “even the high-risk individuals show a rather dramatic decline,” said Brian Judd, an Olympia psychologist who has served as an expert in more than 100 sex-predator cases, mostly for the state in recent years.

“That doesn’t mean that someone over the age of 60 is not going to reoffend,” he said. And he cautioned that child molesters tend to be less affected by age than rapists are because their crimes rely less on physical strength.

Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said while it’s true for other kinds of criminals, he’s not persuaded by arguments that older sex offenders are much less risky.

“You don’t see 60-year-old bank robbers,” Lindquist said. “You do see 60-year-old child molesters.”

By contrast, Snohomish County public defender Martin Mooney said state officials had been too slow to accept research that defense attorneys have been citing for years.

Karen Lundahl, an attorney in the Pierce County Assigned Counsel office, said one offender she represents was released at age 87 just a year after his commitment trial and after suffering minor heart attacks that made him an expensive patient. She suggested that might have factored into his release to an adult family home.

“Once he left the Special Commitment Center, he was no longer their financial responsibility,” Lundahl said. “I can’t say that is motivating (officials). I don’t know what percentage of the releases are because of that, but ... it appears to me a significant number of the guys who are being released now are older and may have medical problems.”

Gauntz, though, said courts have the ultimate say on whether an offender is released, and are unlikely to consider the center’s financial needs.

Another factor in release could be that defense lawyers have simply become more skilled at making winning arguments that their clients are safe for release.

Ken Chang, who leads the team of attorneys who defend accused sexually violent predators at Seattle’s The Defender Association, said their line of argument has shifted to a focus on the specifics of their clients’ cases. In the early years, “We were angry at the junk science that was being used to commit people, so we focused a lot on challenging the junk science,” he said.

Lately, Chang said defenders “explain to the jurors that they’re not monsters; this is the reason why this particular individual ended up being who he was – and in many cases what that individual has done to change that. I think that’s a better story. I think the jurors like it much better.”

MOST SKIP THERAPY

The stated purpose of commitment is to treat the mental conditions that cause violent sexual behavior. Without that justification, courts would never have let Washington lock up offenders who already have served their sentences in prison.

Still, according to the public-policy institute, just 37 percent of the population participates in therapy targeted toward sex offenses. That share has declined slightly during the past four years even as releases shot up.

Refusing to participate in treatment doesn’t necessarily keep offenders from being released.

Serial rapist Andre Brigham Young never agreed to therapy. But Young was finally released in 2010 after nearly 20 years at the center. He was one of its first residents when it was opened in Monroe before moving to the island, and fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the state’s system.

Experts concluded he no longer fit the criteria. Brooke Burbank, who leads the sex-predator unit in the state Attorney General’s Office, said he effectively aged out of the high-risk level. The King County prosecutor’s office announced in 2010 that rather than continue a court fight and risk his unconditional release, it had worked out an unusual deal with conditions. Young is now 71 and living in Tacoma.

Treatment can get an offender into a more appealing setting, such as a halfway house or supervised community placement. But many offenders bypass that step. A slight majority of post-commitment releases came directly from the Special Commitment Center’s main facility, according to the public policy institute.

So it’s unclear whether the growing number of releases are encouraging treatment – by making offenders realize there really is a pathway out – or whether offenders have simply concluded that the way out is to wait on their own aging process, making treatment not worth the work.

Both views were on display during interviews on the island this month.

Rick Monroe, who said he was convicted of raping a child and who has refused treatment, doesn’t see the point.

“Your chance of getting out is (practically) zero until you’re so old they figure you’re not going to reoffend anymore,” Monroe said.

Now 45, he figures he will wait about 10 years before release.

John Benjamin, 63, acknowledges that he came to the center 12 years ago “with a chip on my shoulder” that prolonged his stay. But by last October, he had shown enough improvement in therapy that the court allowed him to move to the step-down facility next door.

He left the tall double fences ringed with concertina wire and entered a compound surrounded by a much shorter 9-foot fence where he lives in a cottage with a few other residents and no supervisors – though the staff is just next door watching camera feeds, and a bracelet around Benjamin’s ankle keeps him under supervision.

At the halfway house, known as a secure community transition facility, Benjamin does chores and groundskeeping work. “I’m learning how to cook. I’m learning how to do stuff like this,” he said while washing a state van along with Richard Broten, another resident.

He takes supervised outings to buy groceries or see his father in Montesano, a relationship he has worked to rebuild during the course of the once-a-week visits.

“They take you out on trips and help you reintegrate back in,” he said.

Benjamin has hope that in a year, maybe 18 months, he will have his own apartment or live with his dad.

If that comes true, he will have a new challenge: facing the outside world.

“It’s hard to have people accept me for what I’ve done,” said Benjamin, whose convictions in 1976 for raping multiple boys put him in prison and on a path to the commitment center.

The public-policy institute said some residents told independent inspectors in 2010 that they decided to enroll in therapy after seeing the growing number of residents being moved into less-restrictive placements.

IN THE OUTSIDE WORLD

Those who fear having released sex offenders in their midst can cite the case of Curtis Thompson, a rapist and former prisoner who was detained at the Special Commitment Center until a jury decided against committing him. He was 44.

He said at the time that he had found religion and changed his ways. But less than a year later, Thompson embarked on a spree that included murdering one woman, breaking into the home of another and raping her, and assaulting two others in several Seattle neighborhoods. He now is serving a life sentence in prison.

How worried are officials about released offenders returning to crime? “Considering our population and the risk they present, it’s always a worry and taken seriously,” Gauntz said.

But while defense attorneys complain that some offenders who no longer pose a great risk are being kept locked up, prosecutors say the right balance is largely being struck.

“They are committed until they’re no longer dangerous,” said Burbank, the assistant attorney general. “The program is working. The higher-risk offenders are being kept out of the community.”

Judd, the psychologist, who has treated 13 offenders after their release or during a transition period, said offenders who emerge from the commitment center often lack any support outside and any prospects for income. Some have learning disabilities. Many are elderly. They must notify potential schools and employers about their status.

A lawyer at The Defender Association, Ken Henrikson, said residents leave without enough preparation for the outside world.

He said officials resist community placement for many offenders because of their risk, but argued it’s riskier to keep them penned up until they are released with no strings attached and no experience in decades with freedom.

Henrikson calls for making offenders eligible for community placement while they are waiting at the center for a commitment trial, which can take years. He helped write a proposal in the Legislature to do that, which is being spearheaded by Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo.

Chang said that plan also would give offenders an incentive to participate in treatment in the early years of their stay.

“People talk about how society is scared of sex offenders,” he said, “but they’re very much afraid of society.”

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 blog.thenewstribune.com/politics jordan.schrader@ thenewstribune.com @Jordan_Schrader Download the Capital Update app for iPad and iPhone for a seven-day free trial.

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