Crime

The most common way to leave Kansas’ sexual predator program is to die

Although the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Kansas’ sexual predator treatment program in 1997, new court rulings and a state audit could lead to changes that would allow more to leave the program.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Kansas’ sexual predator treatment program in 1997, new court rulings and a state audit could lead to changes that would allow more to leave the program. Detroit Free Press

Paul Blumenshine won parole in 1995 after serving 20 years in prison for rape and aggravated battery.

But before his release date, the state of Kansas got a civil court order to lock him up indefinitely under a then-brand-new program to keep violent sex offenders with a high risk of reoffending off the streets until they were deemed to pose no risk.

Seven years was said to be an attainable goal for completing the treatment program.

But it hasn’t worked out that way for Blumenshine, nor for most of the nearly 300 men who have been committed to the Kansas Sexual Predator Treatment Program in the past two decades.

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Only a handful have completed the program and been set free.

“All this is, is a concentration camp and a warehouse,” said Blumenshine, now 74 and resigned to the fact that he may never leave the program at Larned State Hospital. “The only way they get out of here is in a body bag.”

Indeed, 28 men have died in custody, while only four have been judged to pose no risk and been released.

“When you have seven times as many people dying as those completing the program, then you have a problem,” said Michael Whalen, a Wichita attorney who represents sex offenders who could be committed to the program or who are trying to get out.

Now, after two decades of legal challenges and repeated cries of injustice from prison reform groups and civil libertarians, some reforms might well be in the offing.

That’s because of two recent federal court rulings, as well as growing concerns in the Kansas Legislature about the program’s rising costs.

The constitutionality of Kansas’ program was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997, inspiring Missouri and other states to enact their own sexual predator programs. They now are in 20 states, as well as the District of Columbia.

But two U.S. district court judges ruled separately in 2015 that the civil commitment sex offender programs in Minnesota and Missouri were being administered in an unconstitutional manner. Much like Kansas, few if any detainees ever were released. Even offenders at little risk to commit another sex crime because they were elderly or too sick to get out of bed were not being let go.

The plaintiffs in the Missouri lawsuit called that state’s program a “sham,” and U.S. District Judge Audrey G. Fleissig in St. Louis agreed.

Citing overwhelming evidence presented at trial, she said the program “suffers from systemic failures … that have resulted in the continued confinement of individuals who no longer meet the criteria for commitment, in violation of the due process clause” of the Constitution.

In Minnesota, the judge ordered a review of all inmates to see whether they are ready for release. The Missouri court still has to rule on what actions the state must take.

A similar class action lawsuit filed in Kansas in 2014 was put on hold until the Minnesota and Missouri rulings came through, and now the Kansas case is set to proceed as soon as attorneys are appointed to represent the two dozen plaintiffs.

So far the state’s Department for Aging and Disability Services, which administers the program, has not responded to the allegations in court and has declined to comment for this story.

But many of the allegations mirror concerns raised in a recent report by the Legislature’s division of post audit.

That report said a lack of adequate staffing makes it difficult for detainees to progress toward eventual release. The state blames that on Larned’s tight labor market.

Also, it said, the one-size-fits-all treatment program is out of step with current research trends that stress more individualized treatment.

On Thursday, the House budget committee on social services will begin reviewing that post-audit report, which was released toward the end of the 2015 legislative session.

“We didn’t have time to go over it much last year,” said the committee chairman, Rep. Will Carpenter, an El Dorado Republican. “But I think we need to drill down on it.”

Critics think that taxpayers and some of the men now incarcerated at Larned might be better served if alternatives were found to reintegrate some detainees back into their communities.

It clearly would be cheaper. The cost of administering the program has risen along with its population, from $1 million in the late 1990s to an estimated $22 million recommended for fiscal 2016-2017.

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But Carpenter stressed that public safety should be paramount in whatever decisions are made.

“Some of these folks should never be out in society,” Carpenter said.

Any changes that widen the path to freedom will be a hard sell politically when it concerns a class of people that society considers pariahs, said Rick Cagan, executive director of the Kansas chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

But he is optimistic that legislators will make common-sense changes that will set free men who have a low risk of reoffending.

“I can’t imagine that the goal was to lock them up and throw away the key,” he said.

Aim is prevention

For some offenders, that certainly was and is the goal. Society needs to be protected from sexual predators who are not likely to change their behavior, Gene Schmidt said.

“These guys are a danger to society,” said Schmidt, who along with his wife, Peggy, pushed for passage of Kansas’ sexual predator law. The Leawood couple became advocates after their daughter Stephanie, a Pittsburg State University student, was raped and murdered in 1993 by a man on parole after serving time for rape.

Schmidt says the program has produced the desired results.

“We’ve saved a lot of lives,” Schmidt said. “We’ve saved a lot of women and men from being assaulted.”

Children, too. Many of the men who juries have declared sexual predators over the years were child molesters, such as Randall Ritchie.

He served two stints in prison years apart for sexually assaulting young girls before being designated a sexual predator and sent to Larned.

He doesn’t like being there, but Ritchie thinks he has benefited from therapy and other elements of the program.

“I do believe 100 percent that I have made a complete change in my life,” he said in an interview. “I made a promise to myself and God and my wife that I would never ever harm anyone again.”

But the 54-year-old Ritchie said the state Department for Aging and Disability Services makes it difficult for even the most motivated detainee to complete the seven-stage treatment program.

It’s too rigid, not individualized and due to an insufficient number of trained therapists, treatment is spotty, Ritchie says.

“There are many men who have given up trying,” said Ritchie, who filed the 314-page class action lawsuit now before a federal judge in Wichita. “They make the program nearly impossible to get through.”

According to the Legislative Post Audit report, three-fourths of the population has progressed no further than the third phase of the seven-phase program. Those later phases focus on reintegration into society and preventing relapses.

Currently, only one man is on conditional release, meaning he has been set free but is under supervision for five years, a spokeswoman at the Department for Aging and Disability Services said.

Several other states have released dozens of people from their programs after treatment, the auditors found. Washington, which was the first in the nation to enact a sexual predator civil commitment law, had released 70 conditionally and discharged 40 without conditions as of 2014.

In Wisconsin, the numbers were 112 and 118, respectively, and in Iowa the two groups combined totaled 32.

One reason for this, the auditors surmised, was that those states’ treatment programs relied more on the judgments of the professionals on treatment teams to determine when a detainee was ready for the next phases of treatment. Kansas’ is less subjective, requiring strict adherence to steps laid out in the program.

Also, those states were willing to take a slightly bigger risk that those released from the program might commit another sex crime, whereas Kansas had more of a zero tolerance policy.

Data on reoffending was not readily available, the report said, but Wisconsin estimated its rate at 3 to 5 percent.

Even that small of a percentage makes policymakers nervous. But between the court cases, the rising costs and the fact that the facilities at Larned are near capacity, lawmakers and program administrators may have little choice but to act, some say.

“They’re under the gun,” said Eldon Dillingham of Wamego, who has a son in the program and leads the advocacy group Family, Friends and Other Concerned Citizens of Sexual Predator Treatment Program Residents. “But I think they don’t know what to do.”

The auditors made several suggestions, including housing some residents in community-based programs, shifting others to nursing homes and loosening up the treatment program.

Whatever happens, it might not be soon enough for Gerald Wilhelmi, a World War II veteran and former Mission resident who spent five years in prison in the early 2000s for molesting two young girls, then spent the past 11 years at Larned with little hope of ever leaving alive.

“The only way I’m going to get out is in a casket,” he said. “Next month I turn 89.”

Mike Hendricks: 816-234-4738, @kcmikehendricks

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