Keeping sex offenders locked up in treatment after their prison sentences became a popular get-tough tactic in the 1990s, when states were flush with cash. The Associated Press reports that the costs have soared far beyond what anyone envisioned. The 20 states with “civil commitment” programs will spend nearly $500 million this year alone to confine and treat 5,200 offenders considered too dangerous to put back on the streets.
The annual costs per offender was as much as $175,000 in New York and $173,000 in California, and averaged $96,000 a year, about double what it would cost to send them to an Ivy League university. In some states, like Minnesota, sex offender treatment costs more than five times more than keeping offenders in prison. Those estimates do not include the considerable legal expenses necessary to commit someone. The AP says the programs have created a quandary for legislators who need to cut spending in the midst of a recession but don’t want to be seen as soft on rapists and child molesters. “I’ve heard people in a lot of the states quietly say, ‘Oh, my God, I wish we’d never gotten this law,'” said University of Maryland law Prof. W. Lawrence Fitch. “No one would ever dare offer repeal because it’s just untenable.”