San Francisco Chronicle Examines Role of State Mental Health Department in Evaluating Sexual Offenders
The San Francisco Chronicle, as part of an ongoing series evaluating state mental hospitals, on Monday looked at the Department of Mental Health's expenditures for the clinical evaluation and testimony of mental health experts in cases involving sexual violence. According to the Chronicle, the state spends approximately $5.9 million annually for contracted work with psychiatrists, some of whom earn $300,000 a year from state contracts. One psychiatrist and 51 psychologists currently serve on the state panel. Of the panelists, seven are state employees and the others receive $100 per hour for testimony, fees for evaluations and travel and "waiting time," the Chronicle reports. According to state records, the top five earners in the state in fiscal year 2003 were psychologists.
In sexual predator cases, two mental health experts typically evaluate inmates to determine whether they have diagnosed mental disorders that would predispose them to commit additional sexually violent crimes if released. The evaluators score an inmate based on factors such as prior instances, crime and age. Experts then use clinical judgment and consider factors such as substance abuse. If both experts recommend hospitalization, at least one expert will testify at the inmates' civil trials. If the evaluators do not agree, state officials choose a new panel of evaluators. If sex offenders are committed to a hospital, they have the right to a new trial in two years, when experts will re-evaluate them. According to the Chronicle, some defense lawyers and forensic psychologists say that there is no scientifically accepted method to predict a person's likelihood to commit a sexual crime. Psychologist Kathleen Longwell, who has evaluated 300 sexual offenders, said research exists that indicates "how to distinguish a sex offender who is likely to re-offend and those who are not." She added, "There's no way of guaranteeing that none of these guys will sexually re-offend without locking them all up. Everyone is at some risk" (Doyle, San Francisco Chronicle, 7/12).
Approximately 11% of sex offenders released under the state's Sexually Violent Predator Law -- despite being considered by state mental health panelists for inclusion in the state predator program -- were accused or convicted of additional sexual crimes, according to survey conducted by the Chronicle. In the survey, the Chronicle reviewed information from agency officials, patients, prosecutors, experts and defense lawyers on the cases of 121 sex offenders released between 1996 and last month. Researchers found 12 men were returned to prison for not registering as sex offenders, 14 men were convicted of committing a new sex crime and two-thirds of the men were not accused of any new crimes. According to the Chronicle, other studies have indicated that sex offenders are less likely to re-offend than the general population. In the article, the Chronicle profiled seven of the 14 offenders released from Atascadero State Hospital and jails who committed new sex crimes (Doyle, San Francisco Chronicle , 7/12).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.