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Sexual offender commitment - Public Defense

Learn how the Department of Public Defense is fighting for clients facing indefinite civil commitments.

Every day, a team in 1 of our divisions fights for the release of people who are facing indefinite civil commitment to the 232-bed Special Commitment Center (SCC) on McNeil Island, where they often languish for decades. KNKX, an NPR affiliate, recently called it Washington’s “forgotten prison, … the Alcatraz you’ve never heard of.”

Our clients have already served prison terms for a sex offense before being civilly committed to this facility, operated by the state Department of Social and Human Services. Some were sent there based on one offense committed when they were teenagers. Some are developmentally delayed. Many, after decades in the SCC, are elderly and infirm, but are still considered “dangerous” by the State.

Washington created a process of civilly committing sex offenders after their prison sentences (Chapter 71.09 RCW) in 1990—the first state to do so. Since then, 19 other states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government have followed suit.

Individuals facing a petition for civil commitment have a right to an attorney; most are represented by public defenders. Most often, the prosecutor files the commitment petition days before the client is to be released from prison, and the person then goes from prison to the SCC on McNeil Island, where they’re “detained” while awaiting the outcome of the contested commitment order. Many of our clients don’t know this will happen and are devastated when they are not released on their scheduled released date but instead whisked away to King County Jail and then McNeil Island.

The trials that follow are long and complex and, during the COVID pandemic, were often delayed. As Chris Jackson, who heads DPD’s Sexual Offender Commitment unit, explains, “The individual’s whole life, not a specific offense, is on trial.” It’s not unusual for 30 to 40 witnesses to be called or for the trial to last several weeks.

If a person is committed, there is no end point, no term that they’re serving. The committed person receives an annual review and can at any time petition the Superior Court for release to a placement in the community—called “a less restrictive alternative,” a highly supervised probation with GPS and numerous restrictions. DPD’s public defenders—in close collaboration with a mitigation specialist assigned full-time to the unit—work with their clients to try to achieve these placements. Occasionally, a client is unconditionally released.

In 2021, DPD’s small unit—4 attorneys, a investigator, a paralegal, and a mitigation specialist—had a caseload of 44 and was able to secure the release of 10 clients into community placements last year during the pandemic. One client was released unconditionally.  

They also worked with other advocates to successfully convince the Legislature to improve the community placement process, 1 of the first substantive changes in the 31-year-old statute governing these civil commitments. The new law places the primary responsibility for identifying less restrictive alternatives on DSHS, not public defenders; allows DSHS to site LRA housing in any county in the state; and specifies that a person committed to the SOC has a right to a clinically appropriate discharge plan as part of the treatment process.