Sex Offender Treatment Costs Skyrocket, Records Show

December 27, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveMore than $82 million has been spent over the past 10 fiscal years to treat designated “sexually violent predators,” while offenders in the program have paid virtually nothing toward their involuntary commitments, state records show.

Offenders in the treatment program run by the S.C. Department of Mental Health collectively were billed an average of about $8.3 million annually from fiscal year 2002 through last fiscal year, which ended June 30, according toThe Nerve’s review of a DMH spreadsheet provided under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

The total tab for treatment during the 10-year period was $82,755,902, while offenders paid a total of only $753 as reimbursement for the costs, the spreadsheet shows.

The overall annual amount billed to offenders has sharply increased in recent years, from about $6.5 million in fiscal year 2006 to nearly $11.6 million last fiscal year, according to the spreadsheet. That’s an overall hike of 78 percent, or about 59 percent after adjusting for inflation.

The number of offenders in the program has grown sharply in recent  years, according to agency records, from 94 as of June 30, 2008, to 138 as of Dec. 12, an increase of about 47 percent.

Contacted recently, Laura Hudson, a longtime victim advocate and executive director of the nonprofit South Carolina Crime Victims’ Council, told The Nerve that the high annual costs of the program and virtually non-existent payments by offenders reinforce her initial concerns about the program.

“I said from the get-go that if we were locking up people for the amount of time that most crime victims felt they deserved, we wouldn’t need this back-up program,” she said.

Still, Hudson said given that the affected sex offenders, many of whom were convicted of crimes against children, don’t serve life prison sentences, the DMH treatment program, though costly, is needed.

“It’s hard for me to put a price on a child’s head,” she said.

The Nerve last month reported that offenders routinely have received six-figure bills for typically years-long stays in the program, which is housed in the state Department of Corrections’ old Death Row building in Columbia. The Nerve obtained copies of bills for seven offenders, ranging from more than $100,000 to more than $700,000.

Since that story, The Nerve obtained a copy of another bill for nearly $940,000 for an offender who has been in the program more than nine years.

State law allows DMH to seek reimbursement from offenders for the cost of their treatment, though most offenders are indigent, an agency official earlier told The Nerve.

Current and former offenders, as well as offender advocates, have questioned the big bills, contending that relatively little professional treatment is offered in the program.

Under state law, sex offenders who finish their prison sentences can be designated, through a civil court procedure, as a “sexually violent predator” and committed indefinitely to the DMH treatment program, which is aimed at preventing them from re-offending when they are released.

Most of the bills obtained by The Nerve were for offenders convicted of sex crimes with children, records show.

Since the program’s inception in 1998 through October, 217 offenders were admitted to the program, and 76 were released, agency records show. Any treatment costs paid by offenders over the past 10 fiscal years were collected after they were released, according to the DMH spreadsheet provided to The Nerve.

At the time of The Nerve’s initial story, DMH officials did not provide the total annual amounts billed to and total payments collected from offenders, so The Nerve submitted a request for that data under the Freedom of Information Act.

The spreadsheet provided by DMH shows that before fiscal year 2006, the total annual amounts billed fluctuated from about $5.6 million to $7.3 million. But the amounts have sharply increased more recently: $6.46 million (2006), $7.83 million (2007), $8.9 million (2008), $10.38 million (2009), $11.54 million (2010) and $11.56 million (2011).

More than $4 million has been billed so far this fiscal year, which started July 1.

The total amount collected annually from offenders has ranged from just 2 cents (that’s not a misprint) in fiscal year 2006 to $254 in fiscal year 2008, the DMH spreadsheet shows. Nothing was collected from offenders in fiscal year 2011, and zero has been collected so far this fiscal year.

Mark Binkley, DMH’s chief lawyer, told The Nerve in a Dec. 13 written response that appropriated state funding for the treatment program has been about $5 million in recent years, though the number of offenders in and costs of the program have increased during that time.

The Nerve reported in November that the projected budget for the program for this fiscal year is $9.9 million, or $71,748 for each offender, based on an estimated average daily population of 138.

That amount doesn’t include food or use of prison cell space, provided by the Department of Corrections. The average annual cost for an inmate in the state prison system is about $16,000, a DOC spokesman said earlier.

“DMH has had to use other agency funds to operate the SVPTP (sexually violent predator treatment program), further reducing operational funds available for its services to persons in need of treatment for mental illness,” Binkley said in his most recent response.

He added that the agency’s proposed budget for next fiscal year, which wasn’t publicly available beforeThe Nerve’s story in November, requests more state appropriations to provide for “full funding” of the sex offender treatment program.

Binkley said state law allows the agency to seek reimbursement from offenders for the agency’s costs of the program. If offenders don’t voluntarily make payments, DMH can, under state law, seek to place liens on their property, garnish their income-tax refunds or recover money from their estates, he said.

But Binkley also acknowledged that the agency hasn’t been successful in those efforts, noting that the vast majority of offenders are indigent. The DMH spreadsheet provided to The Nerve shows that nothing has been collected through those methods; in fact, it lists no income-tax garnishments and only one lien placed on an offender’s property.

Why, then, bill anyone in the program?

“The question about ‘why bill anyone’ is one that could be asked concerning the majority of persons treated at DMH inpatient programs, as most are indigent and have no health insurance, or at least no health insurance that will pay for the type of treatment they are provided by the agency,” Binkley said in his most recent response.

Binkley said although DMH staff involved in collecting payments for inpatient services “do try to focus the majority of their efforts on those cases where the former patient has some means of payment,” those in the sex offender treatment program “tend, overall, to have even fewer resources than persons civilly committed to one of the department’s state hospitals.”

He noted that the program is “virtually 100% funded with appropriated state funds.”

Asked how much the agency spends on trying to collect payments from offenders in the treatment program, Binkley replied, “It would just be a guess, and would not be a significant cost.”

Contacted recently by The Nerve, S.C. Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said he’s not opposed to billing offenders but questioned whether it’s worth the time, effort and taxpayer cost if most of the offenders are indigent.

“We would be wise to have somebody take a look at the amount we’re expending to collect money,” he said. “Is it being effective, or are we spinning our wheels?”

Martin has more than a passing interest in the treatment program:  He is the author of a 2010 state law that made various changes in the process of committing offenders to the program.

One of the major changes was to require that the Department of Corrections give 270-days’ advance notice – up from the previous 180-days’ notice – to victims of the offenders about the offenders’ pending release date from prison. The notice also has to be given to the S.C. attorney general  and a “multi-disciplinary team” appointed by Corrections.

Martin said the problem with the previous shorter notification period was that offenders were being released from prison well before they were committed to the DMH treatment program, often staying in county jails pending their commitments. Officials running the jails were complaining about the added costs, he said.

“We had some there who were in there for months,” Martin said.

Martin’s bill easily passed the House and Senate, and was signed into law in May 2010 by then-Gov. Mark Sanford. Martin said he’s heard no complaints about the changes since then.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.