Civil Commitment Process

RCW 72.09.345 requires an “End of Sentence Review Committee” to review every sex offender prior to release from confinement. The committee, with members representing several state agencies and chaired by the Department of Corrections, thoroughly reviews the offender’s offense history, involvement and progress in sex offender treatment, mental health status, and other relevant information to assess the resident’s level of risk for re-offending upon release.  The committee assigns a risk level for the offender (Level 1 is the lowest risk level and Level 3 is the highest risk level).

Every year about 800 sex offenders, including about 200 Level 3 sex offenders, are released to the community upon completion of their criminal sentences.  The level of community supervision required for each offender varies, depending upon the statutory sentencing requirements in effect at the time of the offender’s conviction.  Many sex offenders, especially those who were convicted before 1990, have little or no community supervision beyond the requirement to register with local law enforcement.

If the End of Sentence Review Committee finds that an individual potentially meets the legal definition of a sexually violent predator, the individual is referred for possible civil commitment to the McNeil Island Special Commitment Center (SCC). Offenders who were previously convicted of sex crimes by the King County Superior Court are referred to a special unit of the King County Prosecutor’s Office. All others are referred to a special unit of the Attorney General’s Office (AG), which acts as the prosecutor in the civil commitment process for all other counties. In 2002, the End of Sentence Review Committee referred 37 individuals for possible civil commitment. Of these 37 referrals, the prosecutor/AG filed civil commitment petitions with the superior courts on 15 of the individuals referred. Thus, the commitment petitions are filed annually on roughly 10 to 15 percent of all the Level 3 offenders upon their release from prison.

The individuals referred for civil commitment are detained at the SCC pending an investigation by the prosecutor and a “probable cause” hearing. The hearing is held in the County Superior Court where the sex offender was previously convicted. This court acts as the “Court of Commitment.” If the judge agrees that there is probable cause to believe that the individual meets the strict legal requirements for civil commitment, the court will order the person detained at SCC. If not, the individual is released. Individuals detained after the probable cause hearing undergo an in-depth evaluation for the court.  This evaluation is completed by forensic experts who are experienced in evaluating sex offenders and their risk of re-offense.

The civil commitment trial may be held before the judge or a jury empaneled by the court of commitment. The court or the unanimous jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual meets the definition of a sexually violent predator. If so, the individual is committed to the custody of the department of social and health services for placement in the total confinement facility “for control, care, and treatment.”

See a diagram of the civil commitment process.

Annual Reviews by the Court

Civil Commitment is for an indefinite period of time. The individual is held in total confinement until: (a) the individual's condition has so changed that the individual no longer meets the definition of a sexually violent predator; or (b) the court orders the person’s conditional release to a less restrictive alternative placement. Each individual has the right to an annual progress review by the court or a jury of the court. After reviewing evidence and hearing expert testimony, the court may order conditional release only if the release is in the best interest of the individual and conditions can be imposed that would adequately protect the community. Before entering a conditional release order, the court must find:

  1. The individual will be treated by a treatment provider who is qualified to provide such treatment in the state of Washington;
  2. The treatment provider has presented a specific course of treatment, has agreed to assume responsibility for such treatment, report progress to the court on a regular basis, and report violations immediately to the court, the prosecutor, the supervising community corrections officer, and the SCC;
  3. Housing exists that is sufficiently secure to protect the community, and the person or agency providing housing to the conditionally released person has agreed in writing to accept the person, to provide the level of security required by the court, and immediately to report to the court, the prosecutor, the supervising community corrections officer, and the superintendent of the special commitment center if the person leaves the housing to which he or she has been assigned without authorization;
  4. The individual is willing to comply with the treatment provider and all requirements imposed by the treatment provider and by the court; and  
  5. The individual is willing to comply with supervision requirements imposed by the Department of Corrections.

If the court does not find that the individual meets the conditions for release, the individual must remain in the total confinement facility. If the court orders conditional release, the SCC prepares and forwards a file of identifying and offense history information about the individual to the sheriff of the county where the individual will be residing upon conditional release. The sheriff is responsible for managing the community notification process. The individual must register as a sex offender immediately upon conditional release.