Kansas faces criticism for cost of sex offender program

? Kansas is among a number of states facing questions about whether its program that commits sex offenders to involuntary treatment rehabilitates them or, as critics claim, merely warehouses them indefinitely due to public safety concerns.

At a time when Kansas legislators are seeking to find a mix of cuts and tax increases to fill roughly $422 million in budget shortfalls, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has recommended increasing funds for the sexual predator program from $13.9 million in 2014 to $20.4 million by 2017 to accommodate its growing population. Since its inception in 1994, the number of offenders confined has grown to 258 and only three have been released back into the public, according to the Department for Aging and Disability Services, which runs the program.

Supporters of the program argue that the funding increases are necessary to keep dangerous offenders off the street, but some lawmakers have expressed concern as its costs and population balloon. A state audit report is due out Tuesday, looking at ways to address costs and comparing Kansas’ program to those in in 19 other states and the District of Columbia.

The report “won’t be a pretty thing to look at,” said state Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat. He added he believes the Kansas program may be unconstitutionally prolonging offenders’ incarceration without offering proper treatment.

Although the constitutionality of Kansas’ program was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997 and isn’t currently being challenged, a pending judgment in a federal class-action lawsuit over Minnesota’s sex offender program could have ripple effects if it reaches the nation’s highest court, said Kim Lynch, senior litigation counsel for the aging and disability department. In neighboring Missouri, a U.S. District Court started a trial last week over allegations its sex offender program is a prison in disguise.

In Kansas, those who have served criminal penalties and are deemed by a court to be sexual predators are committed to Larned State Hospital — a sprawling complex of prison-like buildings on the plains about 100 miles west of Wichita. They must a complete a seven-phase treatment program to be released.

Tom Kinlen, Larned’s superintendent, estimates that an offender should be able to complete the treatment program in four to five years if all goes well, but acknowledged that 30 percent to 40 percent of patients have refused to participate.

“It’s going to be hard to do when you’re disengaged from the program and actively engaged in inappropriate behavior to say that you’re the one that deserves to be number four or five or six” who gets released, he said, adding that many patients have severe mental problems and may never be safe for release.

But current patients and a former psychologist with the program told The Associated Press that the requirements are nearly impossible to achieve.

Steven Islam, 43, has been at Larned for 12 years and was convicted of child molestation in 1994. Islam, who suffers from schizophrenia, said he committed his crimes while he was off his medication and high on crack cocaine, and believes he wouldn’t reoffend because of the counseling and addiction treatment he’s received.

He is currently at phase three and says he fully participates in treatment, but still expects to die at Larned.

“When I first got here, I worked the program, but when people see that no one is going anywhere, they just give up. They realize this is our situation for life,” he said.

Tapatha Strickler counseled about 90 Larned patients from 2012 to 2014, and said she believes only a handful are too dangerous to be released. Instead, most get stuck in a “vicious cycle” due to organizational problems and because patients can be punished to repeat stages, leading many to boycott treatment out of frustration.

She said she eventually resigned because she felt the program was unethical and the facility had staffing problems because few professionals “are willing to bet their life and their license on working there.”

During Strickler’s time at Larned — which has five psychologists and one psychiatrist for 230 patients — those in the program received one to three hours of professionally led group therapy per week and a 30-minute session with a psychologist once per quarter.

Lynch defended its treatment regimen as constitutionally adequate before a House panel in March, adding that patients also take part in educational courses and other activities that aid in their rehabilitation.

“Maybe not everyone will receive a cure. It’s not an issue of whether there is a cure for things. It’s treatment and these are people receiving treatment,” she said.

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