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Privatization of Va. sex offender program opposed

Monday - 7/30/2012, 5:05pm  ET

Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. - Eleven organizations sent a letter to Virginia's governor Monday opposing offers by two companies to operate a state facility that detains violent sex offenders for treatment after their sentences are completed.

State officials are considering privatization as a way to control costs of the rapidly expanding civil commitment program at the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation in Burkeville. The state spends about $97,000 annually to treat each offender at the 300-bed facility _ more than quadruple the cost of housing a prisoner. The program's budget has increased tenfold since it started in 2004.

A report late last year by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the General Assembly's investigative arm, projected the number of committed offenders could reach 600 by 2016 unless something is done to slow the program's growth. The facility now houses 289, and preparations for double-bunking are under way.

"What is currently an overcrowded situation at VCBR could become dramatically worse if run by a company that increases its profits at the expense of programs and operations, including security, in the facility," the coalition of civil rights, labor, criminal justice reform and religious organizations said in its letter to Gov. Bob McDonnell.

The organizations said the companies that have submitted proposals have had problems running some facilities elsewhere.

"DBHDS is taking a comprehensive look at the two private companies who proposed to run VCBR, including their successes and challenges, to determine whether privatization of the program is the right fit for Virginia," department spokeswoman Meghan McGuire said in an email.

The department received the unsolicited proposals under the state's Public- Private Education and Infrastructure Act, which does not impose any deadline for making a decision. McGuire said that if the agency decides to proceed, its recommendation goes the Public-Private Partnership Advisory Commission.

Virginia's civil commitment program began its drastic growth spurt in 2006, when lawmakers expanded from four to 28 the number of crimes that would make an offender eligible. At the same time, the state began using a risk assessment questionnaire to measure the likelihood that offenders will commit another sex crime.

Since then, the number of those determined eligible for commitment jumped from about 7 percent of all sex offenders being released from prison to about 25 percent, according to the JLARC report. The report said Virginia's process is so flawed that some offenders could needlessly spend years locked up while others who tell officials they are likely to offend again are released.

Tracy Velazquez, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, said Virginia officials should examine their policies rather than just turn the facility over to a private operator.

"There are certainly better and less expensive ways to protect public safety than the questionable practice of civil commitment," Velazquez said. "Locking people up forever and letting people make money off of it is not a solution."

The Justice Policy Institute was one of the organizations writing the letter to the governor.


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