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Civil confinement law being tested

Civil confinement law being tested

A former Porter Corners man convicted three times of sexually abusing young girls is being held in a

A former Porter Corners man convicted three times of sexually abusing young girls is being held in a state psychiatric center, waiting to hear if a judge will order him held there for the foreseeable future.

Andrew M. Pratt, 46, finished his state prison sentence in February, but a state Office of Mental Health evaluation determined a jury and judge should decide whether he’s fit to return to society.

The case is Saratoga County’s first civil confinement proceeding under a year-old law.

Last week marked the first anniversary of New York’s civil confinement law, which allows judges to lock up some convicted sex offenders beyond their prison terms.

In the past year, 111 sex offenders finishing prison terms and evaluated by the state Office of Mental Health were recommended to be considered for civil confinement.

So far, 17 of those prisoners were sent to state psychiatric centers, 11 were ordered to undergo strict supervision and treatment, and four were released after a trial.

The rest are waiting for court dates or for judges to decide how they will be confined.

One of the four found by a jury to be fit to return to society was Douglas Junco of Albany, according to a spokesman for the state Department of Criminal Justice Services.

“The first case we had go to trial last year was in Washington County. A jury found that Douglas Junco did not warrant civil confinement and he was released,” John Caher said. “He had maxed out his prison time and he was let off the leash. He moved to Georgia and on Feb. 4 he was arrested on charges of kidnapping, rape and incest in Savannah.”

Caher said jury members heard from the mental health and legal professionals and made the determination that Junco was ready for release. “It’s a jury of his peers just as if it were a criminal case,” Caher said.

In the Saratoga County case, Pratt, formerly of Greenfield Manor Road, pleaded guilty to a charge of first-degree sexual abuse in September 2000 and he was sentenced in 2001 to seven years in prison and five years of post-release supervision.

opposition voiced

State Assistant Attorney General Joseph Muia Jr. said it was Pratt’s third conviction for a sexual assault against a child under the age of 10.

In March, a jury in his civil confinement case determined that Pratt has a mental abnormality and is likely to commit another sex crime.

In June, Acting Saratoga County Supreme Court Judge Harry Siebert will decide whether Pratt should remain in a residential state psychiatric center or if he should be seen as an outpatient in an intensive therapy program.

The New York Civil Liberties Union opposed the civil confinement legislation and continues to dispute its legality, according to CLU spokeswoman Melanie Trimble. “We lobbied against it and continue to oppose it,” she said.

NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman has warned sex offenders might not be the last criminals held beyond their criminal court sentences.

“Sex offenses are a serious public safety issue, but the political compromise that led to this legislation is not a serious response to the problem,” Lieberman said right after the legislation was approved in Albany. “Its sponsors assert that the bill will confine ‘the most dangerous’ offenders, but in fact it could subject to a civil commitment proceeding a person whose offenses include crimes not generally understood to be sex offenses, such as arson, robbery and minor assault.”

The NYCLU also charged that the legislation is based on erroneous notions of mental disability.

Not all persons who commit sex crimes have psychiatric disabilities, Lieberman said.

“This confusion not only leads to a flawed approach to preventing sex crimes, but could embrace as a matter of public policy the mistaken idea that individuals with psychiatric disabilities are sexually dangerous,” she said.

Supreme Court Rulings

New York is one of 20 states that provides for civil court action to hold sexually violent predators at secure treatment facilities after they have completed their prison sentences if they are considered likely to commit repeated acts of sexual violence.

Past challenges to the laws have made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has repeatedly upheld the involuntary civil commitment of “dangerous persons who are unable to control their behaviors and whose mental illnesses render them a grave risk to the public health and safety.”

According to a New York state Department of Correctional Services report, for the period from 1986 through 1995, approximately 49 percent of sex offenders who were released from New York prisons in 1986 were returned to prison for a violation of parole or for committing a new crime.

Under the New York law, a jury determines whether the prisoner has a mental abnormality and is likely to commit future sex crimes. If they unanimously determine both of those things, a judge decides whether the prisoner will be held in a state psychiatric center or will undergo intensive supervision and treatment as an outpatient.

The state’s Department of Criminal Justice Services now has an office of Sexual Offender Management, which works with the New York Office of Mental Health in determining which prisoners should be considered for civil confinement.

DCJS spokesman John Caher said of 1,249 cases reviewed by the Office of Mental Health in the last year, 111 were referred to the Attorney General’s Office, which is responsible for bringing the cases against the prisoners to a civil jury and a judge.

defense provided

The state’s Office of Mental Hygiene Legal Services provides the prisoner with a defense team arguing he or she should be released.

Sheila Shea is the regional director of Mental Hygiene Legal Services, which covers from Sullivan County to the Canadian border and from Elmira to Vermont. She said her office often gets new prisoner-client cases a day or two before an initial court appearance.

“[Four months] before the anticipated release of a sex offender, the Department of Corrections notifies the Office of Mental Health,” Shea said. “OMH goes through the review process to determine whether the prisoner is a candidate for civil confinement and we may be [given the information] a day or two before the release.”

Within 72 hours of the release, a judge determines whether the state has a case to proceed to a jury. If so, both sides have 60 days to prepare for trial unless extensions are granted.

In the meantime, the prisoner remains locked up.

Caher said the trials that determine whether a prisoner will be civilly confined can be held in either a county or Supreme Court where the inmate was originally convicted or had been imprisoned.

He said 20 people who were about to go through the civil confinement trial voluntarily agreed to civil confinement before the court action began.

He had no details or background for the prisoners who placed themselves in continued supervision.

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