Cost to keep sexual offenders in check is escalating for Virginia

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 21, 2011; 10:35 PM

RICHMOND - Virginia launched its program to keep sexual predators locked up once their prison sentences ended after learning that a serial child rapist who had kidnapped and brutalized a boy and then buried him alive might go free.

Now, nearly a decade later, state legislators are struggling with the escalating cost of the program that has kept hundreds of dangerous felons detained at the same time the state is facing growing needs in education, health care and transportation.

As of January, 252 sexual offenders had been indefinitely committed, costing taxpayers more than $100,000 per felon every year. That population is expected to more than double within five years, causing even the program's biggest supporters to question whether the state can afford to keep so many sexual predators locked up for so long.

"Are we being too aggressive in this?" asked Paul Martin Andrews, 51, a Woodbridge man whose harrowing experience as the young captive of Robert Ausley in 1973 led him to lobby the state to fund indefinite civil commitment for dangerous criminals. "It looks like someone is being overzealous or committing everyone they can."

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has proposed spending nearly $70 million over the next two years to temporarily house an overflow of sexual predators at a Petersburg facility while renovating a mothball prison in Southside Virginia. But legislators in his party are balking at the cost.

The Republican-controlled House of Delegates stripped most of the money out of the state budget, proposing instead that Virginia double bunk some offenders and ship others out of state. The Democratic-led Senate is backing the governor's plan.

It is one of the biggest budget issues dividing the two chambers in the final days of Virginia's annual legislative session, which is scheduled to end Saturday.

"I certainly told the legislators don't not give me the money and then not change the law and leave me with a mess," McDonnell said. "That's not acceptable."

Virginia passed a law allowing civil commitment in 1999 after a Supreme Court ruling allowed states to keep detaining dangerous criminals so long as they get treatment. But lawmakers provided no money for it.

Andrews, then 43 and living in Miami, went public about his attack in 2003 after it appeared that Ausley, who had served almost 30 years, was about to be released. Ausley, on parole for raping and abducting one boy, was expected in court in connection with a second boy's disappearance when he kidnapped Andrews in 1973. Andrews's lobbying helped persuade the House and Senate to vote unanimously to fund the commitment program.

In Maryland, lawmakers are considering a similar program this session.

Other states with commitment programs require that offenders have exhibited a pattern of sexually dangerous behavior before being committed, such as through multiple convictions, but in Virginia it only takes a single crime. A committee of corrections and mental health officials recommends candidates for commitment, and a judge makes the determination.

"Once someone is in there, they are in all likelihood in there the rest of their life," said Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), one of the Senate's budget negotiators. "We have no way of being totally sure we are making the right decision of who is committed and who isn't."

Once committed, the felons live at a $62 million facility about 60 miles southwest of Richmond in Burkeville.

"For those that are in the program that accept treatment, and not all do, they can find their way out," said Keith Hare, deputy secretary of health and human resources. "But we're pretty stringent. . . . We can't just open the door and let them out."

Those committed are held indefinitely, subject to annual reviews by doctors. Since the program began, 11 have been released.

Opponents say civil commitment programs - now in 20 states - could be used to keep violent criminals behind bars forever.

"Certainly society has the right to protect themselves," said Fred Berlin, founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic. "But I hope this is not a ruse, under the pretense of treatment, for permanent detention."

Virginia has expanded the crimes eligible for civil commitment from four to 28, and the number of offenders admitted to the program has soared, from one a month, to six to eight a month. The cost is expected to hit $32 million next year - more than 10 times what it was eight years ago.

And it's still not enough. The 300-bed Burkeville facility built in 2008 will be full by this summer.

McDonnell proposed spending an additional $68.5 million over two years on the program - $24.4 million on operating costs and to temporarily open the 48-bed Petersburg facility, and $43.5 million in borrowed money to convert the closed prison in Brunswick County into a 300-bed treatment center.

But delegates were alarmed by the price tag - particularly the ratio of two staffers to every resident - and have asked state officials to study how to bring costs down.

"I'm not saying we just need four walls and let them do whatever they want, but why should we have stricter security over them then they have in prison?" Del. Harvey B. Morgan (R-Gloucester) said.

There was little discussion about swelling costs when Andrews broke his long silence and began pressing for their continued detention. In Richmond and on national television, he repeatedly told his story:

It was January 1973 when Ausley lured Andrews, then 13, into his van with an offer of $3 to help deliver furniture.

Instead, Ausley drove Andrews 20 miles to the Great Dismal Swamp near the North Carolina border. He kept the boy chained inside a 4-by-8-foot plywood box that he had built and hid underground. He beat him and raped him for seven days.

On the eighth day, rabbit hunters found Andrews in the box, bloodied, scared and crying after being abandoned by his kidnapper.

Ausley was tried, convicted and sent back to prison.

Andrews returned to his family in nearby Portsmouth, talking little about the ordeal that made national headlines - until Ausley was set to be paroled.

Ausley, as it turns out, was never civilly committed. He was sentenced to prison for 47 years for raping another youth. He was 64 when he was beaten to death in 2004 in prison by his cellmate, who had been sexually assaulted as a boy.

Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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