Civil Commitment of Sexually Violent Predators

Protecting the public from sexual predators after they have completed their court ordered term of confinement can pose a significant challenge for state and local law enforcement authorities, as well as citizens in the community.

Following two violent sexual assault cases in the 1980s, a special task force was created to examine various aspects of Washington law that permitted the release of dangerous sex offenders. The Community Protection Act of 1990 was subsequently passed, which resulted in:

  • Changed/increased criminal sentences for sex offenders
  • Registration and notification statutes RCW 9A.44.130 and RCW 4.24.550 regarding sex and kidnapping offenders
  • The creation of a specialized End of Sentence Review Committee that reviews and makes recommendations regarding sex and kidnapping offenders prior to their release from the Department of Corrections (DOC) and Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS): Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration, Western/Eastern State Hospitals and Special Commitment Center
  • The formation of civil commitment laws to confine and provide treatment for persons who are determined to be sexually violent predators RCW 71.09. In Washington, a sexually violent predator is defined as “any person who has been convicted of or charged with a crime of sexual violence and who suffers from a mental abnormality or personality disorder which makes the person likely to engage in predatory acts of sexual violence if not confined in a secure facility.”

Offenders, including those who pose a greater risk of harm to the community, cannot be held in confinement after they have served their court-ordered sentence for a criminal offense. But civil commitment laws allow a judge or jury to determine whether a sex offender who appears to meet the definition of a sexually violent predator should be released to the community following their confinement period or whether they should be placed in a secure DSHS-operated facility for control, care, and treatment.

Prior to release from state confinement, the ESRC will request a forensic psychological evaluation to determine whether those offenders who appear to meet the definition of a sexually violent predator do in fact meet criteria for civil commitment. The evaluation will be completed by a member of the Joint Forensic Unit (JFU), which is a pre-selected group of expert forensic psychologists who specialize in sexually violent predator and sex offense risk evaluations.

If a JFU evaluator concludes that an offender appears to meet the legal definition of a sexually violent predator, the offender will be referred to the appropriate prosecutor’s office for civil commitment consideration. Civil commitment referrals are reviewed and processed by the King County Prosecutor’s Office SVP Unit or the Washington State Office of the Attorney General SVP Unit

Once the King County Prosecutor’s Office or the WA Attorney General’s Office files a probable cause petition, a hearing will typically be scheduled within 72 hours in the county Superior Court where the offender’s most recent sexually violent offense was committed. If the court determines that there is sufficient evidence to proceed with a civil commitment trial, the offender will be transferred to the DSHS Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island.

During the civil commitment trial, a judge or jury must determine whether, beyond a reasonable doubt, the person meets the definition of a sexually violent predator. If the court or unanimous jury decides that the state has not met its burden of proving that the person is a sexually violent predator, the court shall direct the person's release. If it is determined that the person is a sexually violent predator, the person will be civilly committed to the Special Commitment Center for control, care, and treatment until:

  • The person’s condition has changed so that he or she no longer meets the definition of a sexually violent predator; or
  • Release to a less restrictive alternative (LRA) is in the best interest of the person and conditions can be imposed that would adequately protect the community. A LRA consists of court-ordered treatment in a setting that is less restrictive than total confinement at the Special Commitment Center.

Prior to ordering a person’s conditional release to a Less Restrictive Alternative, the court must find the following:

  • A qualified treatment provider has agreed to treat the person;
  • The treatment provider has outlined the specific treatment plan and rules that the person will be expected to follow; progress will be regularly reported to the court; and any violations will be immediately reported to the court, prosecutor, supervising community corrections officer; and the Special Commitment Center;
  • The person will live in housing that is sufficiently secure to protect the community and the housing provider has: agreed in writing to allow the person to reside there; will provide the level of security required by the court; and will immediately report to the to the court, the prosecutor, the supervising community corrections officer, and the Special Commitment Center if the person leaves the housing to which he or she has been assigned without authorization;
  • The person will comply with the treatment provider and all requirements imposed by the treatment provider and the court;
  • The person will comply with supervision requirements imposed by the Department of Corrections.

Sexually violent predators who have been granted a court-ordered LRA are usually first released to a DSHS-operated Secure Community Transition Facility (SCTF), which offers 24-hour supervision and security, and ensures the resident is provided sex offender treatment services. Whenever SCTF residents leave the facility for employment, treatment, and other pre-approved activities, they are accompanied by professionally trained escorts who must maintain close proximity at all times. Sexually violent predators may also be granted a less restrictive alternative release from the Special Commitment Center or the SCTF to a personal residence in the community.

Persons who have been civilly committed must be evaluated each year by a forensic expert who specializes in assessing sex offenders and the estimated risk of re-offense. The annual review must address whether the committed person continues to meet the definition of a sexually violent predator, and whether conditional release to a less restrictive alternative is in the best interest of the person and conditions can be imposed that would adequately protect the community. Committed persons also have the right to an annual progress review by the court or a jury.