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Committing to a Quick Fix

Mental-health experts caution against moving ahead with the civil confinement of sex offenders

 

Eliot Spitzer last year as a candi-date and this year as governor has expressed his resolve to enact a civil-commitment law,” said Christine Pritchard, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office. He made this resolve very clear in his first budget by allocating $46 million to the state Office of Mental Health to civilly confine in its facilities violent sex offenders. While this budgetary move is sure to be a popular one, there are many people in the mental-health community who regard it with concern.

“This is something that has been proposed in the past, creating these units in mental-health facilities geared toward holding sexual offenders,” said Glenn Liebman, CEO of the Mental Health Association of New York State. “But it is something that we have fought for several years, on several fronts. We just don’t think that this is good public policy.”

“The mental-health system should not be identified as the resource for sexual offenders,” he added. “I think it is absolutely detrimental to mental-health patients.”

Liebman’s reasons are threefold. First, there is a safety issue. People with mental illness, he said, are 12 times more likely to have been abused in their lives than the average individual. Placing a predatory criminal into a vulnerable population could be disastrous.

Second, he continued, there is already a stigma attached to mental illness. In using mental-health facilities to confine sex offenders, there is a latent equating of the mentally ill with sexual offenders, which is incorrect and dangerous.

“It sets us back years,” he said.

The third major issue is funding. Though Spitzer’s budget is an improvement on past budgets, mental-health funding is not spectacular, he said.

“With funding in the mental-health budget to house sexual offenders, we fear there will eventually be less money to house people with mental illness,” Liebman said. “You look at the people who will be housed as sexual offenders, and that number will likely increase, not decrease.” With this increased number, he said, the mental-health community at large could see its vital resources depleted as money shifts to the specific needs of housing sex offenders.

“I have not seen one study that shows that civil commitment is effective in reducing the number of sexual assaults in our communities,” said Richard Hamill, president of the Alliance of Sex Offender Service Providers. “It has a negligible effect.”

In fact, he said, the majority of states don’t use civil commitment, and two of the states that do are working now to dismantle the systems that they have set up. The No. 1 reason that states abandon civil commitment is cost. Due to the unique legal requirements of civil commitment, which include 31 hours a week of treatment, the cost of holding violent offenders is roughly $250,000 per person per year. And in a system that only 1 to 3 percent of the people committed to ever leave, the costs quickly become overwhelming.

“All of us who work in the field have come across someone we don’t feel should be in the community,” Hamill said. “There are some really dangerous sex offenders. Our hope is that they would be kept in corrections facilities where they cost $30,000 [per person] as opposed to the mental-health facilities that cost a quarter-million.”

What experts in the field of sexual offenses are suggesting, Hamill said, is that the justice system do a better job evaluating sex offenders prior to sentencing and give the most dangerous much longer sentences, including lifelong probation after release.

“What I am hoping the governor will do is draw together a task force to take a look at this and then to craft a much broader kind of bill that would address sex-offender management. We need to take a look at all of the components that ought to be put in place.”

The governor and the lawmakers, he said, need to take a look at the comprehensive picture of dealing with sex offense. From prevention and education programs in the schools, to assisting investigations, to what can be done for victims, the issues surrounding sex offenses are complex and intertwined.

“I am afraid that we will create a system that will be very hard to undo,” Hamill said, “and that we are going to be fashioning all the other sex-offender-management strategies in the state around [civil commitment]. It will become more of an obstacle than something positive.”

—Chet Hardin

chardin@metroland.net


What a Week

Unpleasant Way to Make History

Freelance journalist and video blogger Josh Wolf has now been imprisoned more than six months—longer than any journalist in U.S. history—for refusing to turn over footage he shot of a protest in San Francisco. Authorities issued a subpoena to Wolf, 24, demanding that he turn over his footage, which depicted a protest of the G8 summit during which, authorities allege, protesters attempted to blow up a police car. Wolf refused and was found in contempt of court. Although California’s Shield Law provides protection for journalists, the federal government provides no such protection. And, because the federal government funds the San Francisco police for things like terrorism response, Wolf’s case is a federal one.

Speak English or . . . Don’t

Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell vetoed a bill this week that would have required all government communication to be in English. The Nashville Metro Council passed the bill last week as a slap at illegal immigration. The authors of the bill acknowledged that the act was mostly symbolic and would have had a large loophole because federal laws mandate multilingual communication in a number of instances. “If this ordinance becomes law, Nashville will become a less safe, less friendly and less successful city. And as mayor, I cannot allow that to happen,” said Purcell, who is not seeking reelection.

Terror-Free—At Least in Name

The Terror-Free Oil Initiative opened its first American gas station this week in Omaha, Neb. The goal of the initiative is to eliminate the dependency on oil imported from all Middle Eastern countries, countries that it assumes support terrorism. With the annual franchise cost of $1, the founders of the initiative hope to make “every gas station in America terror-free.” The problem is that while the initiative buys its oil only from companies that don’t import oil from Middle Eastern countries, the initiative does buy its oil from companies like Sinclair Corp., which purchases much of its oil on the New York Mercantile Exchange. By purchasing oil on the open market, companies like Sinclair cannot ensure the oil’s country of origin.



Serving Specific Needs

Programs targeted at LGBT community receive financial boost in Spitzer’s budget

For nearly a decade, In Our Own Voices has provided health and human-services programs to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of color throughout the Capital Region. The organization, which operates out of an office on Albany’s Lark Street, is one of several LGBT groups that span the state as part of the New York State LGBT Heath and Human Services Network.

The mission of network member organizations is supported financially, at least in part, by state funds, including a portion that is allocated through the governor’s executive budget. Last year, IOOV shared from a pool of more than $2 million as specified by former Gov. George Pataki. Under Gov. Eliot Spitzer, that pool amount may nearly triple if the Legislature approves Spitzer’s call for an increase to $6 million. While it’s unclear how such a figure would be spent specifically, the increase may allow for the funding of additional health and human services providers or the expansion of existing programs.

“During [Spitzer’s] campaign, he certainly talked about how he would prioritize funding for LGBT health and human services, so we did have high hopes that there would be an increase,” said Ross Levi, director of public policy and governmental affairs for Empire State Pride Agenda. “We didn’t have any sense of how much that would be, however, but we are certainly pleased with what has come out.”

As part of its work as an LGBT civil rights and advocacy organization, Empire State Pride Agenda coordinates education and advocacy for the network, whose member organizations total more than 50 and reach residents in most counties.

“[Members] provide services that are unavailable to our community or would be offered in another setting that wouldn’t respond to the unique needs of LGBT people,” Levi said. He offered an example involving a member of the LGBT community with substance-abuse issues whose only option for support services may involve attending a program through a religious organization. “In fact, one of the contributing factors to your risk behaviors might be dealing with your sexual orientation, and that not only might not be addressed in another setting but the harm might be compounded.”

In addition to substance-abuse treatment programs, network members, as well as a handful of state-funded providers not affiliated with the network, offer a variety of other services. Some, such as the Unity House of Troy’s Safety Zone, serve the youth population. Others provide health and wellness programs, mental-health treatment and crime-victim assistance, to name a few. All network programs are designed to be non-HIV-focused.

“That’s an important founding principle of the network,” Levi said. “It’s not that organizations involved with the network aren’t concerned with HIV funding. In most cases, we very much are, but we also understand that there needs to be a powerful voice advocating for the non-HIV needs of our community, and that was one of the reasons that the network formed.”

IOOV projects in the Capital Region include advocacy and education, substance abuse and recovery, and anti- violence programs. Money from the governor’s budget accounts for about 70 percent of IOOV’s total operating costs, said Tandra LaGrone, executive director. “It really is the foundation of our whole operating budget.”

Members of the network receive the bulk of executive budget funding. Although all network groups receive some level of state funding, not all receive it through the governor’s spending plan. Many receive funds from the Legislature’s budget, which allocated about $1.3 million last year.

While LGBT health and human services funding from the governor and Legislature fluctuates from year to year, this year is all but certain to be the largest to date. Previously, the largest year resulted in around $5 million from both sources, Levi said.

“Just to be clear, as exciting as [the executive budget] money is, a huge chunk of the network groups don’t get funding from this pool and are dependent on the Legislature providing funding,” Levi added. “The next few months will be vitally important, as the budget process moves, for the LGBT community to advocate for the funds it needs from the Legislature.”

During the 1990s, an assessment study to determine what levels of funding would be needed to effectively service the LGBT community established $25 million as the target amount. “And that was in 1990s money,” Levi said, “so even with this exciting growth, it is a drop in the bucket.”

—Nicole Klaas

nklaas@metroland.net


Let the Sun Shine

Rep. Michael McNulty cosponsors a bill to extend expiring tax credits for alternative energy systems

Rep. Michael McNulty (D-Green Island) said that while he was impressed with President George Bush’s mentions of promoting alternative energy in the last few State of the Union addresses, the president has never come through on the issue. “The current administration has been a huge disappointment in this regard,” he said. “We need to get things rolling, get things done.”

Citing the need for increased investment to make alternative energy more affordable, last month McNulty and cosponsor Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) introduced legislation to Congress that would extend two-year solar and fuel-cell tax credits, set to expire at the end of this year, that were included in 2005’s Energy Policy Act—a wide-ranging policy that McNulty said was nothing but “a big multibillion dollar giveaway to the oil companies.”

The legislation, called the Securing America’s Energy Independence Act, was first introduced in April 2006, but Congress concluded session before the bill came to a vote.

The bill would extend for an additional eight years the 30-percent tax credit for solar systems purchased for both residential (capped at $2,000) and business applications. The use of fuel cells provides an investment tax credit of 30 percent per kilowatt (capped at $1,000), which will also be extended.

Supporters say that the original two-year credits are too short to have a lasting effect on the industry. McNulty said the credits may eventually need to be extended even further.

What McNulty is doing is “ensuring that the good portions of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 stay on the books,” said Robert Moore, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. Moore agrees with McNulty that 2005’s energy policy was full of giveaways. “We commend him for that,” he said.

Moore said that much of New York’s delegation, Democrat and Republican alike, opposed that energy policy, but he added that New York could be doing more to promote alternative energy.

McNulty expects this legislation to stimulate growth in companies that develop alternative energy technology. Plug Power, a fuel-cell company based in Latham—one of several local alternative energy companies—anticipates increased investment as a result of the tax credits.

Cynthia Mahoney White, director of marketing communications at Plug Power, said that the tax credits will encourage companies to invest in and adopt technology they may be uncertain of because, while not unreliable, they are not as time-tested as things like batteries. “As long as we can continue to get [the tax credits] extended, we will,” White said. “It’s always good to have that benefit.”

McNulty said that he hopes to be a part of any legislation that will encourage the development of alternative energy, whether regarding fuel cells, solar power, or wind power. “We need to do a lot” to promote these industries, he said, in order to make them more affordable.

The Solar Energy Industries Association estimates that the long-term extension of these tax credits will result in approximately 55,000 jobs nationwide in the fast-growing solar industry by 2016. The solar power industry has more than tripled in size since 2001.

—David Canfield


Religious Conversion
PHOTO: Alicia Solsman

“We literally live in a world that is different than the world we see around us,” said the Rev. Robert Edgar Sunday (Feb. 11) at the First Lutheran Church in Albany. “Fifty percent of the people on planet Earth will go to bed tonight hungry.” Edgar, a former U.S. congressman, was the keynote speaker at Recovering Our Voice: Calling Truth in a Culture of Subterfuge. The symposium, sponsored by the Interfaith Alliance, was designed to help reshape conversation in the religious world, away from the polarizing subjects of homosexualty and abortion toward the “more pressing issues” of poverty, war, and tolerance.

—Chet Hardin

 



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