TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas is overhauling a program that confines sex offenders indefinitely for post-prison mental health treatment following a federal lawsuit, a critical legislative audit and legal challenges to similar programs in other states.
Officials in the Larned State Hospital program plan to roll out the changes in the next few weeks after months of work. They said treatment will become more structured, personalized and focused on changing thinking and behavior that could cause patients to commit new crimes once released. They also said patients will have a greater number of short, supervised community visits.
Advocates for the 264 men committed by state courts to the program said they’re encouraged by the promised changes but remain concerned because the Larned hospital, about 100 miles west of Wichita, faces ongoing staffing issues.
A lawsuit filed by 25 of the patients in October 2014 alleged that the Kansas program “consistently” failed to provide adequate treatment and gave them almost no chance of ever being released. A legislative audit last year noted that in more than two decades, only three patients had completed the program, while 28 had died of natural or medical causes.
Larned officials said the changes are likely to allow more patients to be released safely, and that they aim to give Kansas among the nation’s strongest programs. Both the lawsuit and audit suggested Larned wasn’t doing enough to tailor its treatment to individual patients.
“They’ve basically been doing talk therapy up until now. Now we’re moving to action-oriented programming,” said Edward Latessa, director of the University of Cincinnati’s School of Criminal Justice, who has worked with Kansas officials. “They were one size fits all.”
Kansas legislators created the program in 1994 after the rape and murder of a college student by a sex offender who had been released from prison. The U.S. Supreme Court declared the program constitutional in 1997 because of the promised treatment. Twenty states and the federal Bureau of Prisons now have such programs, and they are believed to house more than 5,000 people.
Within the past year, federal judges in Minnesota and Missouri have ordered changes in their programs, and Iowa and North Dakota’s face lawsuits.
“We are encouraged by the news that the state of Kansas may be overhauling the treatment program,” Don Peterson, a Wichita attorney who is among the lawyers representing the Kansas patients, wrote in an email. “Time will tell, however, whether any new program which is implemented adequately addresses the problems.”
Eldon Dillingham, a Wamego resident whose 38-year-old son was committed to the program several years ago, said boosting professional staffing and lowering turnover remain crucial.
The program has a full-time psychiatrist and seven full-time therapists, as well as three contract therapists. About 24 percent of its 249 staff positions are vacant.
“The program could be great, but our concern is the staffing,” said Dillingham.
The Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, which oversees the program, has rejected allegations that the program’s treatment was inadequate. But it is also adopting a system for evaluating each patient’s risk of reoffending, which the audit suggested.
Director Mike Dixon said the program already has seen patients’ non-participation in therapy sessions drop in recent months by roughly half, to about 24 percent. Since the audit, the state has more than doubled the number of beds outside the hospital for inmates moving closer to release, to 41 from 16.
Dixon and other officials said the coming changes will result in the program doing a better job of adjusting treatment for patients with serious mental health issues or lower education levels.
They plan more frequent physical testing of how well offenders control inappropriate sexual urges while giving them more chances to have short visits in the community under one-on-one supervision. They also said the state will do a better of keeping up with research about treating offenders.
“The field is really changing at the moment, and we wanted to reflect that,” Dixon said.
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