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State Program is Designed for Violent Sex Offenders

Jail Cell
Jail Cell (Credit: Andrew Bardwell; flickr)

Missouri locks up its violent sex offenders, but not all stay in prison. In part one of a two-part series. Christina Turner looks at the state's program for who it deems the worst of the worst.

Yet almost 200 men in Missouri are being held in mental hospitals, not for what they've done, but for what they might do in the future. 

"They served their time.  They maxed out on the prison sentence, so to keep them in civil commitment without giving them treatment is absolutely punitive," he said.

That's Christopher Cross, the legal guardian of a mentally disabled sex offender.

The program he's describing is Sex Offender Rehabilitation and Treatment Services, or SORTS program.

It's civil involuntary commitment for sex offenders that the state classifies as sexually violent predators.

St. Louis University Law School Dean Mike Wolff served on the Missouri Supreme Court for 13 years.

He says the U.S. Supreme Court rationalized preventive detention based on the theory that medical treatment could reform sexually violent predators, allowing them to return to the community. 

"But if they're not there for treatment and there's no possibility they'll get out then I'm not sure that the rational for a civil commitment is really met," he said.

He says prosecutors can override recommendations that review teams make about whether or not a sex offender should be civilly committed.

If given a civil commitment trial, offenders have the right to a jury, but Wolff says that doesn't necessarily help their chances. 

"Any lingering doubt that this person might or might not be dangerous, I think most people would say, 'well, keep 'em in,'" he said.

Bob Reitz is the director of psychiatric facilities for the Department of Mental Health.

He says making former prisoners involuntary patients allows medical professionals to treat them so they can re-enter society without jeopardizing anyone's safety. 

"That would be the goal is for these people to eventually remain in the community under supervision or if the judge makes a decision to be fully discharged from the program," he said.

But since the program started in 1999, no SORTS patients have been discharged.

Hal Lowenstein is an attorney with Armstrong Teasdale in Kansas City. The St. Louis Federal Court appointed his St. Louis office to handle a lawsuit in federal court against the state and the Department of Mental Health.  As one of the litigators on the case, he says the intent of the lawsuit is to find out why no one has progressed out of the program.

"The fact that nobody has crossed the finish line out of all of these people who've been involved really kind of tells the tale that once you're there you're there," he said.

In the almost 15 years that SORTS has been around, 17 people have died from old age or illness.  Only four people have been given conditional release without discharge.  No SORTS patient has successful appealed their placement and no one has been released.