A path toward successful legal reform after terrible tragedy
As Washington state lawmakers consider what to do in the wake of the murder of six police officers, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg suggests they consider the success of a reform process spurred by different tragedies 20 years ago.
Special to The Times
IT was 20 years ago this month when the Washington State Legislature began deliberations to overhaul our sex-offender laws. The calls for reform came, like they often do, in the aftermath of terrible criminal tragedies.
As we begin another legislative session, this time in the wake of the murder of six police officers, we should remember the remarkable outcomes achieved under similar circumstances two decades ago.
The Community Protection Act was enacted in 1990 in response to two violent sex crimes that sparked widespread public outrage. First, Diane Ballasiotes was abducted and murdered in a downtown parking garage by a dangerous psychopath who had walked away from his work-release bed. Then, a 7-year-old Tacoma boy was sexually assaulted and mutilated by a repeat offender, just released from prison.
From these two tragedies came strong reform in how our state dealt with sex offenders. The laws passed 20 years ago gave Washington state the model sex-offender laws in the nation.
Gov. Booth Gardner convened the Task Force on Community Protection and appointed King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng as chair. Maleng took this task to heart and knew that crimes of sexual assault had for too long been undervalued in our justice system. He wanted to hear from the citizens of the state, especially from victims of sexual abuse.
Ida Ballasiotes and Helen Harlow, the mothers of the victims in the two cases, also served on the task force. Ballasiotes remembers, "We held public hearings throughout the state and heard virtually the same concerns everywhere: longer sentences, better supervision, sex-offender registration and the idea of community notification."
Harlow organized the Tennis Shoe Brigade to keep the issue before the public. Lawmakers were moved to see hundreds of children's sneakers arranged at the steps of the Capitol to illustrate the point that children throughout the state, like her son, were at risk from predatory pedophiles.
Tougher sentences could be implemented for future cases, but what about the hundreds of sex offenders who were currently in prison and soon scheduled for release?
To meet that need, the concept of civil commitment was developed, to evaluate sex offenders who were nearing the end of their sentences and assess the risk of future dangerousness. The Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island became the first of its kind in the nation, providing specialized treatment within a secure setting for people found by a jury to be too dangerous to be set free.
Over the past two decades, more than 300 offenders have been committed under this law. That equates to just over 1 percent of all sex offenders handled by the courts, upholding the task force's promise to limit civil commitment to the "worst of the worst."
Longer sentences, civil commitment, sex-offender registration and public notification of the release of sex offenders were the key components of the 1990 Act. Finally, the legislation created new treatment opportunities for victims, and also for offenders, especially juvenile sex offenders.
Twenty years later, the Legislature begins another session in the aftermath of a series of crimes aimed at law-enforcement officers. There will be calls for reform, for task forces and for change.
If the history and product of the 1990 Community Protection Task Force is any guide, these calls for change should be answered. We owe it to the victims, their families, and the public to conduct a complete review of our justice system. Our work toward community protection is an ongoing commitment.Dan Satterberg is the King County prosecuting attorney.
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