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Civil commitment: The cost of locking up sex offenders

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Raul and Mirna Laguerre’s son, Raul Jr. has completed his 10-year criminal sentence for sexual assault charges, including sodomy, and is being confined indefinitely under New York’s civil commitment law. Peter Carr/lohud

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A stark, tree-lined roadway leads to the secluded Central New York Psychiatric Center in Marcy, a rust belt town where hundreds of mentally ill sex offenders are locked up without much chance of release and obscured from public scrutiny.

They are considered the most dangerous sexual criminals in New York, such as a Westchester County man who raped six women in the 1980s and a man described as “the dark side of the U.S. Constitution” by a Rockland County judge after his two decades of sex crimes, including the slaying of a girlfriend.

On a blizzardy December day, a reporter drove the barren route for the first known media interview inside the heavily guarded stone-and-brick building that houses these sex offenders.

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Cleared by the sentry booth, the rare visitor walks through a chain-link corridor wrapped in razor wire. Electric buzzers unlock gates, the sounds of maximum security echoing on the state property steeped in America’s dark history of insane asylums shuttered long ago as inhumane.

The interview unfolded in a cafeteria-style room, and guards sat at a nearby desk during the hour-long questioning of Raul Laguerre Jr., one of 231 men confined there indefinitely under New York’s civil commitment law for sex offenders.

Laguerre had served his entire 10-year criminal sentence for a vicious sexual assault, but instead of being released he was civilly confined in 2014, prompting a long-delayed trial set for June 5.

“Every time I go to court it’s the same thing all over again,” Laguerre said in the interview. “This is being punished twice for the same crime.”

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The closely watched glimpse behind the psych center’s walls in 2015 led to an investigation by The Journal News/lohud into the controversial civil commitment law, enacted a decade ago in the wake of a high-profile murder in a downtown White Plains parking garage.

A months-long review of public records and interviews with a dozen medical and legal experts raised questions about justice system failures, abuse inside psych centers and gaps in mental-health services in New York and nationally.

“There is not a completely right or wrong answer regarding civil commitment, but really a question of whether or not we’re using our community resources to keep the community safe,” said Maia Christopher, executive director of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.

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The Journal News/lohud analysis of the civil commitment law in New York, however, found new details about how and why 322 sex offenders are confined at the Marcy psych center and another site in Ogdensburg, near the Canadian border.

  • About a third of the 322 men civilly confined in New York are black, suggesting racial bias in the justice system. The New York Civil Liberties Union has long asserted the bias would be a key failure of the law, but it wasn’t confirmed until The Journal News/lohud reviewed sex-offender data in 2017.
  • Two-thirds of civilly confined offenders, or 206 men, had no prior convictions that required sex-offender registration, calling into question statements by prosecutors, politicians and mental-health officials that the law focused on repeat offenders.
  • At least 15 guards and 22 prisoners have been injured inside the Marcy psych center, according to state and labor union reports, but it’s difficult to determine many details about abuse because state officials denied a public-records request, citing privacy laws intended to protect patients at hospitals.
  • Since the law took effect, 91 civilly confined men have been released to a highly restrictive probation program. Many committed violations that likely revoked their release, the most recent data from 2016 show. Out of 220 violations in one analysis, six were sexual in nature, state data show, but further detail isn’t provided.
  • It costs taxpayers $65 million per year to confine the offenders, or $175,000 each. By contrast, the strict probation costs about $9,000 per offender. Exact numbers were unavailable because state officials would not release fiscal records, citing the fact that civil-commitment costs are not separated in state budget documents.

The law

The civil-commitment law in New York is named “Connie’s Law” after Concetta Russo-Carriero, a 56-year-old legal secretary fatally stabbed by a convicted rapist in a White Plains parking garage outside the Galleria mall.

Phillip Grant was out on parole after serving 23 years in prison for raping three Bronx women when he brutally murdered Russo-Carriero. He told police he wanted to kill a white woman because he was fighting a race war, prompting intense lobbying that led to New York becoming the 20th state with civil commitment.

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Under the law, state mental-health officials evaluate sex offenders to determine if they have a mental abnormality that makes them likely to re-commit sex crimes, thus requiring confinement after they complete criminal sentences.

The state Attorney General’s Office prosecutes the offenders, who are represented by the state Mental Hygiene Legal Service and public defenders.

Examples of the secrecy shrouding civil commitment in New York include the limited public information about who is confined. For instance, the state Office of Mental Health cited privacy law in refusing to confirm Laguerre was locked up in Marcy, despite The Journal News/lohud obtaining the interview through a mental-health law request.

Further, The Journal News/lohud had to create a database of civilly confined men from an online sex-offender registry to analyze the law. The effort required identifying them from the registry of nearly 40,000 sex offenders in New York.

Politics and media

Opponents have historically criticized civil commitment’s cost and the likelihood those confined would ever be set free, but political debate has been limited because many lawmakers are reluctant to appear soft on crime.

Judges have also drawn criticism for erring on the side of confinement, according to legal experts, such as Michael Perlin, a prominent New York law professor and former director of the state Mental Health Advocacy program in New Jersey.

“What’s the judge most afraid of?” Perlin said. “They are most afraid of a headline in the New York Post or local newspaper that talks about a patient released by the judge going out and committing a horrific act.”

Further insight into how courts handle civil commitment came from a state report last year that disclosed the success rate of prosecutors in New York. Courts supported the key “mental abnormality” diagnosis in 91 percent of 564 cases between 2007 and 2015, the report shows.

Of those cases, 331 men were civilly confined and 174 went on the strict probation program, with the remaining nine pending a decision, according to the report.

For an example of the political stigma of civil commitment, look no further than Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. He voted against the law as a state senator in 2007 and now oversees the office prosecuting offenders.

“The problem is, once people are put into civil confinement under this bill, it’s virtually impossible to get out,” Schneiderman said in 2007, defending his opposition vote. “What court is going to err on the side of the sex offender?”

Schneiderman would not discuss his prior opposition to the law. Doug Cohen, a spokesman for the attorney general, disputed that the law wasn’t meeting its intended purpose of treating and rehabilitating dangerous sex offenders.

“We’re committed to continuing to consult closely with mental health professionals and counselors, so that the court is able to make fair determination,” Cohen said, adding that New York has annual risk reviews for offenders.

By contrast, some other states, such as Minnesota, are facing legal challenges to their civil commitment laws because they lack regular evaluations of offenders.

Robert Perry, legislative director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, described being appalled at the lack of accountability and political action after being informed that The Journal News/lohud confirmed the racial bias in New York’s justice system.

“There are systemic inequities, and the people that should care and do something about it don’t,” Perry said.

Legal debate

Charles Ewing, a psychologist and attorney, has handled about 50 independent evaluations to determine if sex offenders should be confined indefinitely in New York. His role under the law is basically to check the work of state psychologists.

Of the 50 cases, Ewing said he found half of the sex offenders shouldn’t be eligible for civil commitment. A handful have been released on the highly restrictive probation, called SIST, or “strict and intensive supervision and treatment.”

Ewing, also a professor at the state University at Buffalo Law School, further described civil-commitment laws nationally as a perversion of justice, citing legal debate over federal court decisions that have upheld it in New York and 19 other states.

“The courts have generally said that it is OK that this is not double jeopardy and not unconstitutional because it’s treatment and not punishment,” Ewing said. “In my experience it is punishment; these men are locked up.”

Further, some of the offenders took criminal plea deals more than 15 years before civil commitment took effect, learning on the cusp of freedom that the law applied to them and essentially ignored civil rights protections, Ewing said.

“Many of the people that I’ve seen (civilly confined) have committed crimes in ancient history,” he said.

Still, OMH data show civil-commitment and its SIST program have reduced the rate of re-arrest for sexual offenses since 2007. Before the law, 7.2 percent of select offenders were re-arrested after five years of being free; After the law the rate dropped to 3.8 percent, the agency study found.

In other words, the most dangerous sex offenders were being civilly confined or watched closely by probation officers.

However, Ewing disputed the OMH study as self-serving and flawed, citing a lack of details and insufficient proof the agency accounted for uncontrollable variables, such as overall drops in violent crime nationally.

“These data in no way show that (civil commitment) has made any difference in the rate of sexual offending by released offenders,” Ewing said.

The Laguerre interview

Under the watchful gaze of psych center guards, Laguerre described his life of regret, fear and frustration.

The story begins on a rural suburban street in Newburgh, the Orange County city where his working-class family moved to escape the crime and chaos of the Bronx.

Bullied in middle school as the new kid, Laguerre got into trouble for throwing a chair in class. School officials required he visit a psychiatrist, and his parents picked Dr. Alfred Ramirez from a health-insurance network list, unaware of his history of improperly treating patients and a stint in jail for Medicare fraud in the 1980s.

In June 2003, Ramirez prescribed Laguerre a potent mix of Zoloft, an antidepressant; Strattera, an attention-deficit/hyperactivity-disorder drug; and Risperdal, an antipsychotic. Seven weeks later the 15-year-old broke into a neighbor’s home, bludgeoning a woman into unconsciousness and sodomizing her.

A jury convicted Laguerre after a high-profile trial, despite another doctor testifying that the “pharmacological cocktail” led to the sexual assault.

At the psych center, Laguerre, now 28, had a shaved head and wore glasses, a cardigan sweater and pants. He wasn’t restrained and paused often during the conversation, visibly emotional while seeming to search for the right words.

“One thing about it is that Dr. Ramirez has ruined my life, ruined every aspect of my life and ruined my family at the same time, too,” Laguerre said. “It’s just been a downward spiral, downward punishment the whole time.”

The interview of Laguerre came in 2015 after Ramirez was arrested on federal charges of illegally selling prescriptions for thousands of pain pills, including a batch that killed a Yonkers teacher. Ramirez died last year while awaiting trial.

Laguerre also talked about his crime and belief that it was a hyper-sexualized hallucinatory side effect of the drugs, despite a doctor for the prosecution disputing it at the 2004 trial.

“What happened to my victim was horrible,” Laguerre said, adding an apology to the woman. “The crime is so painful and it was this dream, and that’s how I truly remember it, the most horrible nightmare you can ever account for.”

His indefinite punishment and limited chance of release was also a topic.

“I would love to have a life and love to start my life,” Laguerre said. “To be honest with you, I never even had a life: I’ve been locked up since the age of 15. What I would give for a second chance.”

Treatment concerns

Mental-health treatment is critical to the court battles over civil commitment.

The most recent fight came in Minnesota over that state releasing few of its more than 700 sex offenders, making it one of the most active and restrictive civil commitment programs nationally.

A federal judge ordered an overhaul but an appeals court this year overturned the decision, which some legal experts say may reach the U.S. Supreme Court and threaten civil-commitment in other states.

While New York’s program has released more sex offenders compared to some states, Ewing, the independent mental-health evaluator, said its civil-commitment facilities fall short of providing the treatment required by law.

“This is not effective treatment that is going on for these fellows in these institutions,” Ewing said. “Most of them are being warehoused and a lot of them don’t participate in the treatment that is offered.”

State Supreme Court Justice James Tormey, who is based in Syracuse and a renowned civil-commitment expert, made similar comments in calling for treatment overhauls in 2015, when he ordered the release of a civilly confined man identified as Richard Z.

“It is time for the state of New York and OMH to review this statute and develop individualized needs for patients which complies with ‘meaningful treatment’ and that allows patients such as Richard Z. to progress through the program,” Tormey wrote.

OMH officials defended the treatment in response to Tormey’s comments that focused on increasing community-based services and using more medication to limit sex offenders’ risk of re-offending.

“The Office of Mental Health’s civil management program provides intensive, proven, individualized treatment services to reduce the risk of recidivism and protect New York communities from dangerous sex offenders,” said James Plastiras, an agency spokesman. “To suggest otherwise is inaccurate and misguided and an insult to the OMH staff charged with treating these dangerous individuals.”

Conflicts and solutions

Some legal and mental-health experts have asserted conflicts of interest influence the state agency overseeing civil-commitment.

“The primary conflict is that OMH is a bureaucracy that needs to maintain itself, and they set up this huge bureaucratic apparatus to deal with sex offenders,” Ewing said. “If they didn’t have sex offenders (civilly committed), what would they do?”

Examples include OMH staff issuing evaluation reports and changing them later to keep offenders locked up, according to court records. The report doctoring grew after New York’s highest court ruled in 2014 that a diagnosis of anti-social personality disorder alone was insufficient to lock up offenders, Ewing said.

“After the court decision came down saying that (anti-social) wasn’t sufficient, suddenly these guys were given other diagnoses,” he said. “I think it brings shame and disrespect to the mental-health profession.”

Courts have released 19 sex offenders entirely from New York’s civil commitment program amid efforts to overhaul policies and improve mental-health treatment behind bars and in the community.

OMH officials noted they have begun evaluating more mentally ill sex offenders in prison to get them into treatment earlier, despite criticisms about the quality of care.

Other reform examples nationally include a program in Tennessee, called the Memphis model, which trains police and attempts to divert more mentally ill criminals into treatment rather than prison.

“The institutionalization is one thing, but whether we as a community and society are really focused on prevention is another, and we don’t do a very good job of that,” said Christopher, of the treatment advocacy group. “If you want to prevent sexual abuse, you have to attend to the people at risk of sexually abusing.”

Gary Craig, staff writer for the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, contributed to this report.

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