The Pataki administration said yesterday it would keep 12 sex offenders committed in mental hospitals as it reevaluates their mental fitness per a court order, even as it plans to appeal a judge's ruling that the governor's actions went beyond the scope of the law.
New York State Supreme Court Justice Jacqueline Silbermann ruled Tuesday that Governor Pataki had improperly committed the 12 men to mental hospitals without following proper procedures. A spokeswoman for the governor, Jessica Scaperotti, said the administration will reevaluate the men by November 20, but also is planning to appeal the decision and will "push Assembly leadership to vote on the governor's civil commitment legislation."
In an interview with The New York Sun, the commissioner and director of criminal justice for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, Chauncey Parker, said yesterday that the Judge's decision focuses on the technical process for civil commitment, rather than the mental health of offenders or the dangers they pose to the community. "We think it's clear that we used the appropriate procedure," Mr. Parker said.
The decision adds another layer to the divisive debate over how the state's most violent sexual offenders should be dealt with following the completion of their prison terms. The mentally ill sexual offenders make up part of a larger population of sex offenders. There are more than 22,000 registered sex offenders in New York State, according to the Web site for the state registry.
Some New York lawmakers have suggested tougher prison sentences for sex offenders, while others, including Mr. Pataki, have called for a state civil commitment law that would confine the most violent offenders to mental hospitals if they were deemed mentally ill.
Such a legal procedure already exists in the state's mental health law, but that law addresses the entire mentally ill population and Mr. Pataki wants passage of legislation specifically targeting sexually violent predators, the Civil Commitment for Sexually Violent Offenders bill.
Mr. Parker said the governor's legislation has passed in the Senate each year for the past seven years, but the Democrats have prevented a vote in the Assembly. Mr. Pataki's bill is modeled after civil commitment laws in 16 other states.
Due to the Assembly's inaction, Ms. Scaperotti said, the governor directed authorities to invoke the mental health law for civil commitment of the mentally ill. Since September 12, more than 100 individuals have been evaluated and 26 committed, including the 12 plaintiffs. The 26 offenders include two who violated 3-year-old children, 13 who violated children under 10, and at least eight who refused sex offender treatment in prison, the governor's spokeswoman said.
In her decision, Judge Silbermann did not contest the mental state of the defendants but wrote: "Even persons acquitted of violent crimes by reason of insanity may not be civilly committed to a mental hospital solely because the pose a danger to society." The men were conditionally released from the mental hospitals after the decision came down, and will be re-evaluated by independent psychiatrists.
One Democratic lawmaker who heads the Assembly's mental health committee, Assemblyman Peter Rivera, criticized the governor's move on many fronts, saying that it was not the most economical way to handle mentally ill sexual offenders.
State law says that to involuntarily commit someone to a mental institution, the person must be evaluated by two independent psychiatrists and found mentally ill, in need of care and treatment, and a danger to others. He ot she must also be informed of the evaluation and given a chance to appeal.
The deputy director of the state's Mental Hygiene Legal Service, Stephen Harkavy, said the 12 committed men were deprived of those rights. "We are gratified that she did find that the procedure by which these individuals were sent from prison to the psychiatric hospital were not the proper procedures," he said. A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Skip Carrier, would only say that the judge's decision "touches on several facets of a complex problem."