SC could privatize program for sexual predators

abeam@thestate.comFebruary 12, 2013 

— The state Department of Mental Health could privatize its program for sexually violent predators under a proposal that state lawmakers endorsed Monday.

South Carolina is one of about 20 states that has a program that allows the state to keep sexually violent predators in prison past their release dates if a judge rules they pose a threat to the community.

That program is growing and expensive.

It now houses 156 felons, up 67 percent since 2008, according to Mark Binkley, deputy director for the Department of Mental Health, the agency that operates the program and treats the offenders. And it cost the state $12.3 million to operate this year.

For next year, Mental Health wants an additional $1.4 million to run the program.

“This program has grown and grown ... and we haven’t seen the height of where it is going to be in South Carolina,” said state Rep. Murrell Smith, who sponsored the proposal to allow Mental Health to explore privatizing the program. “All this (program) does is distract from (Mental Health’s) mission to provide mental-health services to citizens of South Carolina.”

A House budget subcommittee inserted the privatization proposal into the House budget bill Monday. The budget is a complicated bill and still has many steps to go before it becomes law.

But, for the first time, Smith, the chairman of the budget subcommittee that oversees the sexual predator program, proposed a way to deal with the program’s long-term budget issues.

The program’s biggest need is added space. Mental Health hopes to move the program into a renovated building at the maximum security Broad River Correctional Institution later this month. Even then, the program is on pace to outgrow its new space in just two years.

Binkley estimates a new facility would cost $50 million to build — a price tag that lawmakers have balked at. One option could be for the state to pay a private company to build a new building and operate the program. That way, the state would pay for the building over time in smaller payments.

“It’s a pay-me-now or pay-me-later situation,” Binkley said. “By doing it this way, you are meeting a lot of your needs now and spreading the cost over a lot of years.”

The proposal requires Mental Health to request bids from private companies for “creative and cost-effective long-term solutions.” It does not require Mental Health to privatize the program, but it gives the agency an option to do so.

Bill Lindsey, executive director of the S.C. chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said he likes the idea because it would allow Mental Health to focus more on its other duties, mainly treating South Carolina’s mentally ill citizens. “I would welcome changes taking some of the burden off of the Department of Mental Health, for sure,” he said.

South Carolina has committed 241 people to the sexual predator program since it started in 1998. Seventy-seven people have been released, and eight have died while in custody. Recently, the state attorney general’s office has been more aggressive in opposing the release of patients, one of the factors contributing to the program’s growth.

Maia Christopher, executive director of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, said whatever the state does it has to ensure the program treats people successfully so they eventually can be released.

“The problem people run into is people continue to come in but there is no systematic way for them to be released,” she said. “So it becomes a one-way system with the costs that are associated with that.”

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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