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Mental Health Policy for Sex Offenders under Review

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By Kamika Dunlap on April 15, 2010 12:59 PM

California is cutting many corners to save money, but a recent change -- in mental health policy for handling sex offenders -- is under review and may be illegal.

The Sex Offender Commitment Program, in which mental health experts interview sex offenders to evaluate if they are too dangerous has changed the way it operates, the San Diego Tribune reports. Instead of conducting multiple face-to-face interviews many mental health experts are more likely to review inmate's records from home on a computer screen.

The shift in mental health policy has many critics and lawmakers concerned that it might be illegal and has raised questions about its overall effectiveness. The program, which is now under review, was designed to protect the public from violent predators.

Many say when the program first began in 1996, it was functional and that today it is in disarray. The program, which has been adopted in 20 other states, is expensive -- about four times as costly as prison.

Sex Offender Commitment Program officials say that the demand of Jessica's Law (Prop. 83) has brought an increase in psychological evaluations. But the number of offenders being sent to mental hospitals rather than being released has gone down and now people are trying to understand why.

Among those people are the parents of Chelsea King, who are fighting for changes to California's sex offender laws. Convicted sex offender John Gardner has been charged with murdering and raping their daughter.

Evaluators disagreed about the threat Gardner posed after his 2000 conviction for molesting a 13-year-old neighbor, and he was released.

Inmates found to be a continuing danger are sent to court in the county where they were last convicted.

A judge or jury decides whether an inmate should be hospitalized.

Gardner's case has many looking more now closely into how the program operates and whether any of changes to it over years have been illegal.

A traditional evaluation involves a review of case files, an interview with the inmate in prison and a written report -- a process that typically takes 20 to 30 hours.

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