Why are violent sex offenders being relocated to local neighborhoods, often without widespread notification to those living there? KIRO Newsradio’s Kate Stone investigates how this growing issue is being handled across Washington state.
Where — and how — to house sexually violent predators in Washington state has become a hotly debated topic among residents, lawmakers, and state officials.
Much of the recent attention has been in the Thurston County city of Tenino, where as many as five Level 3 sex offenders are set to move into a five-bedroom farmhouse run by private provider Supreme Living LLC, which has a contract with the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).
That facility, which was set to open Feb. 1, is now on hold while permitting and zoning concerns are addressed.
Plan to house sex offenders in Tenino on pause amid public outcry
Now, a similar situation is unfolding in Enumclaw. Some residents and local leaders there say they were not given advance notice when a sexually violent predator, Stevan Knapp, was relocated there mid-January.
It has highlighted questions about what is and is not permitted when it comes to relocating sex offenders into less restrictive housing alternatives (LRA). These LRAs can be close to homes, neighborhoods, and schools, often drawing the ire of those living and working nearby.
But confusion remains for many on what qualifies as an LRA, where it can be located, how it is run, the legal obligations of the state and local agencies to keep local families safe, and, perhaps most pressingly, why violent sex offenders are now being housed in certain communities, often without widespread notification to those living there.
How a sexually violent predator returns to the community
Sexually violent predators can be held in state custody after their prison sentences — but not permanently.
Once their prison sentence is complete, a prosecutor can ask the court to commit a sexually violent predator to the Special Commitment Center (SCC), a total confinement facility on McNeil Island in Pierce County. The SVPs, referred to as “residents,” remain there indefinitely.
But the Special Commitment Center is not a prison. It’s a facility designed for long-term specialized mental health treatment for sex offenders, according to the DSHS. The committed person receives an annual review and can petition the Superior Court for release to a less restrictive placement in the community — under highly supervised probation alongside numerous rules and regulations.
“Forensic evaluations that they’re entitled to every year becomes their pathway to conditional release and then subsequently potentially unconditional release … completely free and clear of any supervision,” Special Commitment Center CEO Keith Devos said.
Last Thursday, Rep. Dan Griffey (R-Allyn) and Rep. Travis Couture (R-Allyn) introduced a bill in the Washington state Legislature that would place a moratorium on the release of sexually violent predators into residential communities. If passed, civilly committed sex offenders could only be housed in secure facilities on McNeil Island or one Secure Transition Facility in South Seattle. The bill would also restrict the state from utilizing any new facilities.
But that violates the offenders’ rights under the U.S. Constitution, according to both the DSHS and the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. The due process clause ensures someone under civil commitment can — and must — be released if it is shown that they are no longer mentally ill or dangerous.
“It goes back to their constitutional right. They’ve paid their time in the Department of Corrections (DOC), and when they’re civilly committed, we as a state have to give them a constitutional way out,” DSHS spokesperson Tyler Hemstreet said. “If we’re requiring treatment, we have to give them a constitutional way out.”
The process of relocating sex offenders to community-based housing is not new.
“The courts have been releasing residents since the 90s conditionally,” Devos said.
Washington became the first state in the nation to enact a civil commitment law for SVPs when it passed the 1990 Community Protection Act. If that law did not exist, offenders who have completed their time in prison could live where they want — without restrictions.
“They’re released straight into the community, and unless you’re diligent, you wouldn’t even know they’re there and they wouldn’t have all these security measures,” said Chris Wright, director of DOC Communications.
Wright also stated the LRA is a way to monitor offenders before they are unconditionally released.
What an LRA is — and what it isn’t
Once a sexually violent predator is relocated from the McNeil Island Secure Commitment Center, there are multiple types of less restrictive options. According to Devos, those include:
A secure community transition facility (SCTF) operated by DSHS. The program offers 24-hour intensive staffing and close proximity supervision by trained escorts when residents leave the premises. These secure facilities are a step down from total confinement, and serve as a type of “halfway house” between total confinement and release into the community. There are two such facilities in the Puget Sound area: One on McNeil Island (separate from the Special Commitment Center) and one in South Seattle.
Another option is community housing operated by a private provider. The provider may offer 24-hour staffing and trained escorts, but is not required to do so. The facility in Tenino is one such example.
There is also independent housing, which can mean sexually violent predators returning to their families or being placed in an apartment or group home. “Independent homes have minimal to no staffing,” Devos said. This includes the home in Enumclaw, where convicted sex offender Stevan Knapp was placed.
Hemstreet stated there’s often confusion about the difference between an SCTF and LRAs. While all three types are considered “less restrictive” options, a sexually violent predator is only released to an LRA in the community if the court determines that release is in the resident’s best interest, and the proposed conditions can keep the community safe.
“The courts make the final decision,” Hemstreet said. Neither state nor local officials can change that decision, nor can Governor Jay Inslee.
According to a 2021 opinion issued by Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office, “there is no provision that allows a local government to categorically prohibit or block a committed person’s release or LRA placement.”
Conditions for sexually violent predators in LRAs
Every convicted sex offender living in an LRA is under close supervision of both the DSHS and the DOC and is required to follow court-ordered conditions, including sex offender behavioral health treatment and monitoring, according to DSHS.
All must wear GPS ankle monitors at all times and register with the local sheriff’s office. Additionally, each sexually violent predator has a transition team that includes a certified sex offender treatment provider, a social worker from the Secure Commitment Center, and a DOC corrections specialist. The offender is required to meet with the specialist at least three times per month. Each specialist monitoring LRA residents handles an average of 10 cases, in addition to their duties to complete investigations, according to Chris Wright.
Suits: ‘I would be P-O’d’ if sex offender house was in my neighborhood
Beyond that, Wright stated, there isn’t a standard set of conditions. Instead, restrictions are set on a case-by-case basis and created by a collaboration of the prosecutor on the case, the offender’s defense team, state officials, and the court. But he said he usually sees some common requirements.
“They often have to be escorted by an approved monitoring adult to chaperone them during any trips outside of their immediate residence. All trips have to be pre-approved. They are required to attend treatment, report in person to their supervising DOC officer on a weekly basis, submit travel plans in advance for any trips into the community, and have the destination site surveyed by DOC,” Wright said. “There are dozens of conditions that have to be met that the courts set for these individuals. If they violate them, even minor violations, they can find themselves quickly back on McNeil Island.”
This article is Part I of a three-part investigative series regarding sex offender housing in local communities across Washington. We will be releasing Part II and Part III in the coming days.