The mental health experts who help decide whether convicted California sex offenders are too dangerous to be released used to rely heavily on face-to-face interviews. They would travel to the prison, sit across a desk from the inmate, and ask deeply personal questions about parents, siblings, puberty, sex. Many say it's the best way to understand what makes someone tick. Now, says the San Diego Union-Tribune ,the experts are more likely to sit at home and look at an inmate's records on a computer screen.
That shift in policy may be illegal, critics say. It has prompted a local assemblyman to ask for a government audit and has raised concerns about the effectiveness of a program designed to protect the public from what are known formally as sexually violent predators. “It's gone from a very well-functioning program to just a disaster,” said a sex-offender evaluator who has worked on the program since its inception in 1996. “The whole program is in disarray.” Nancy Kincaid, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Mental Health, denied that the new policy is illegal or that it has affected the quality of the evaluations. She said about 40 percent of the inmates refuse to be interviewed anyway. Questions about the program are mounting after the killings of two teenage girls. Critics say the commitment program is overwhelmed by Jessica's Law, a voter-approved 2006 crackdown on sex offenders. The measure brought a tenfold increase in referrals from the prisons for psychological evaluations. But the number of offenders being sent to mental hospitals rather than being released has gone down. Now some people want to know why.