County must build ‘transition facility'

Kitsap County officials might have to choose between a state mandate and political survival as they grapple with regional planning policies this year.

State law requires the county to site and plan for a Secured Community Transition Facility (SCTF) capable of housing three civilly committed sex offenders — residents who’ve completed their jail terms but are undergoing court-ordered treatment in a secured setting before re-entering society.

Planning work is to be complete by September, with the state possibly opening a site in Kitsap as early as spring 2004.

“Politically speaking, it is a time bomb,” said Mary McClure, executive director of the Kitsap Regional Coordinating Council.

The KRCC board, composed of representatives of Kitsap County and its four cities, recently initiated talks with the state Department of Social and Health Services, which monitors the facilities as they are built.

“The thought is that it’s better to be in control as a county while planning, then let the state tell us where to put the facility,” Kitsap County Commissioner Jan Angel said.

“The bottom line is, we don’t want to do this,” County Commissioner Tim Botkin said. “But we have to take on our fair share of the state’s burden under the law.”

Jurisdictions not in compliance with the edict are considered in violation of state growth management laws.

The June 2001 law established a 24-bed SCTF on McNeil Island in Pierce County. It also required 12 other counties, including Kitsap, to prepare to build similar halfway houses to accommodate a growing number of civilly committed sex offenders.

The state will need a projected 49 more beds between May 2004 and May 2007.

Three of those beds must be in Kitsap. The figure is based on the number of sex offenders the county had committed to the McNeil Island Special Commitment Center as of April 2001.

The law is based on the idea that one county shouldn’t shoulder the entire burden of housing sex offenders. The U.S. District Court ruled two years ago that the state must make additional “arrangements for the community transition of qualified residents, under supervision, when they are ready for a less restrictive alternative.”

McNeil Island already holds 151 civilly committed sex offenders in a totally confined mental health facility.

County prosecutors often petition the courts to civilly commit sex offenders who already have served their time in prison but are considered highly likely to reoffend and need treatment and counseling.

Those civilly committed sex offenders are sent to the McNeil Island facility.

But courts have ruled that the constitution requires less-restrictive treatment alternatives than those available on McNeil Island.

Along with the ruling, the federal court issued a $5.3 million fine. If the state complies with the ruling, however, the fines are waived. The state hasn’t yet been required to pay those fines.

The law also affects King, Snohomish, Pierce, Yakima, Thurston, Clark and Island counties.

The Washington State Association of Counties is lobbying to add liability clauses to the law.

“Cities and counties that undertake good-faith actions to provide for siting these facilities should be protected from lawsuits,” WSAC spokesman Jean Wessman said. “Protection should be offered also to local law enforcement agencies.”

The law includes criteria for these siting facilities, according to Beverly Wilson, an assistant superintendent at McNeil Island.

The halfway houses must be located outside of residential areas and can’t be within view of schools, libraries, parks, day cares and similar institutions.

Law enforcement and emergency medical personnel also must be within five minutes of the facilities.

DSHS will operate the transitional facilities, providing at least one staff member for every resident during the day. Other security measures must be implemented, and residents aren’t allowed to leave except for approved purposes and with escorts.

Only court-approved residents can transition to the SCTFs.

The state has offered grant funding to help pay for the facilities. But now those funds are in jeopardy because of potential budget cuts.

“We’re not nearly as interested in working with them if this is an unfunded mandate,” McClure said.

The KRCC plans to meet with DSHS officials in February.

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