After Robert Watkins tried to rape a 6-year-old Johnson County, Ks., girl, the criminal justice system sent him to prison for five years. After he did his time, he didn't go free. The Kansas City Star says a judge ordered him into the Kansas Sexual Predator Treatment Program, where, nine years later, he remains with no guarantee that he will ever be released. In the program's nearly 20-year history, it's been more likely that a resident will leave in a hearse than walk out to rejoin society. So far, only three have earned their freedom. Twenty-two have died.
What's happening in Kansas is unfolding in 19 other states that have similar civil commitment laws aimed at protecting the public while giving program residents a chance to change their lurid behavior. Nationwide studies estimate that more than 5,000 sex offenders are confined in such programs at an annual cost of more than $500 million — much more expensive than prison, sometimes three times as much. “It is not sustainable,” said Maia Christopher of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. There also is a growing concern that programs are drifting away from their original goal of treatment into a legally gray area that could bump up against the U.S. Constitution.