Why are violent sex offenders being relocated to local neighborhoods, often without widespread notification to those living there? KIRO Newsradio’s Kate Stone’s three-part series investigates how this growing issue is being handled across Washington state.
Read Part I: Why sexually violent predators are being housed in local communities
Concern and outrage are spreading in some local communities, which are now becoming homes for sexually violent predators. In Washington state, these offenders have a constitutional right to be released back into society after their prison sentences and civil commitment is completed, and they are judged by a court to no longer be a danger to the community.
While this process has been in place for decades, some residents in Enumclaw and Tenino have recently made their voices heard, opposing the placement of sexually violent predators in their neighborhoods. These offenders are living in less restrictive housing alternatives (LRA) with minimal security.
The concern over this practice, while not new, is getting the attention of elected officials on both the state and local level. At least five bills were introduced in this year’s legislative session regarding sex offender housing and how to better regulate it. It’s also forced greater scrutiny on the current laws, including some recent changes that have had a major impact, especially in rural communities.
A recent change to LRA law in Washington
A bill passed in the 2021 state legislative session that amended the state law related to the housing of violent sex offenders. Most notably, Senate Bill 5163 created a “fair share” principle for housing, designed to ensure one county would not absorb a disproportionate amount of sex offenders. At the time, state Senator Christine Rolfes (D-Bainbridge Island) said it would allow “people who are potentially dangerous, but not necessarily dangerous, back into communities where they can live safely and with their constitutional liberties protected.”
But the “fair share” principle created complications and confusion, as some question why a sex offender from another county is being released to less restrictive housing alternatives (LRA) near their homes. The state must first look for housing inside the county where they committed their crime.
“The Department of Social and Health Services (DHSH) is in charge of finding those locations, creating options for the resident and the court to choose from,” DSHS spokesperson Tyler Hemstreet said. But he said, ultimately, the offender and their defense team can develop an LRA plan anywhere housing exists in Washington, as long as the court approves it.
“The court does not have to abide by the fair share principle,” Hemstreet continued. “The resident’s defense team does not have to abide by the fair share principle.”
That was the case with Level 3 offender Stevan Knapp, who was first convicted of violent sex crimes in 1983 and has been civilly committed since 1999. Before being granted a conditional release, Knapp was living in the Secure Community Transition Facility (SCTF) in Pierce County and was set to move into a community-based LRA in Tacoma, according to the court order. Knapp’s crimes occurred in King County, but because his defense team developed the LRA plan, “fair share” does not apply, according to DSHS. However, before his release, Knapp’s defense team requested relocation to a home in Enumclaw that was purchased by a couple in 2022 and later approved as an LRA. The court signed off on the change, and Knapp moved into that home on Jan. 18. He is currently the only resident.
Plan to house sex offenders in Tenino on pause amid public outcry
Lack of clarity with LRA laws?
The current laws governing LRAs have drawn confusion and some criticism, even from those most closely tied to the issue. Notably, DSHS Deputy Asst. Secretary Sjan Talbot expressed concerns during initial hearings on Senate Bill 5163 in 2021. She said it didn’t address how local jurisdictions would need to work to create resources necessary to provide housing in communities that don’t currently have it. She said the agency needed counties to partner with the state, and the bill did not require it.
Those concerns appear to be playing out. While the restrictions for sexually violent predators in LRAs are extensive and overseen by the Department of Corrections (DOC) and DSHS, the regulations around where LRAs can be located — and who can run them — are much less clear, especially after the passage of SB 5163.
According to Hemstreet, an LRA must “be up to code and safe for a resident to live in.” The Washington Administrative Code also outlines other general conditions, including that LRA providers are required to report any violations of the court order, even minor ones.
Beyond that, the guidelines surrounding LRAs are vague, including what types of monitoring or security each one must have.
“Different residents require different levels of supervision when they discharge to an LRA. Some houses have cameras. Some have 24/7 staff there. Other houses have no cameras,” Hemstreet said. “The question for DSHS is: ‘Can conditions be imposed on that LRA that will protect the community?’”
That question is triggering serious concerns in communities like Tenino.
“If [sexually violent predators] need to be somewhere, have a secure home, have the appropriate resources, have the appropriate staffing,” said Tenino resident Sarah Fox, who is leading a community effort against the Supreme Living facility.
Thurston County Sheriff Derek Sanders has also questioned how quickly law enforcement would be able to respond to such a rural area if an incident were to occur.
The same question was raised in Enumclaw. “In these staffed houses, like the one in Tenino, what kind of training does this staff have?” one woman asked officials on the panel. “And can we have that?”
Those types of decisions are up to the courts, according to Hemstreet, unless lawmakers enact new legislation to regulate LRAs. And as of now, no state law dictates staffing nor mandates that a provider has a license or special training to operate an LRA. However, DSHS says certain kinds of criminal history will disqualify potential housing providers, including felony convictions.
A 2020 bill sponsored by Rolfes would have placed restrictions on what kinds of residence settings would qualify as an LRA, but it did not pass. The 2021 state law did mandate an LRA must be 500 feet from a school or childcare facility. But a report to legislators last year from the state Sex Offender Policy Board outlined potential problems with this, especially as it applies to the “fair share” principle.
“The 500-foot rule allows any local resident nearby to block an LRA placement in their neighborhood by applying to be considered a daycare or ‘childcare facility,’” the report read. “The 500-foot rule and zoning restrictions make it nearly impossible to place LRA housing in more urban areas, such as Seattle and other cities. This makes it less likely to place people in counties with a higher population density.”
In addition, the board cited research that indicated a blanket 500-foot restriction did not increase safety and “can increase a false sense of safety.”
Another issue with the LRA system involves contracts. Of the 26 current community-based LRAs, only four have a contract with the state.
McNeil Island Special Commitment Center CEO Keith Devos said there’s confusion surrounding the purpose of contracts. He stated he’s heard from people who believe “contracts equate to SCC releasing residents into the community. And so I want to let everyone know contracts do not do that.” Rather, “the contract actually provides us a higher level of oversight and quality assurance and allows us to require deliverables, allowing us to get into the home more often. The non-contracted homes— our relationship with those providers is through the court order.”
Hemstreet also claimed the advantages of the contract include “a rate that DSHS negotiates with contracted providers [which] is less expensive than if the resident’s defense produces the LRA plan.”
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In the state contract with Garden House in Enumclaw, there is a set rate the state pays to house each offender. In addition, the provider is required to, among other things, submit a monthly progress report for each resident. These conditions are not in place for a non-contracted LRA.
According to Hemstreet, the DSHS has only enacted these types of contracts with providers since 2021, when the state law was passed. As such, the difference between contracted and non-contracted LRAs, including quality of care and level of oversight by state agencies, remains unclear.
This article is Part II of a three-part investigative series regarding sex offender housing in local communities across Washington. We will be releasing Part III tomorrow.