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Danger to society: Shouldering the cost of housing sex offenders

Nushawn Williams had a way with the ladies.

The small-time dealer from Brooklyn, who made his way to Jamestown in the mid-90s, was known for his charm and “big-city” glamour, making friends — and attracting girls — at a host of drug- and booze-infused parties.

Over the course of a year, possibly more, Williams managed to seduce a number of his impressionable clientele, all while hiding an HIV-positive diagnosis.

The revelation, discovered by Chautauqua County health officials, caused a panic in the area, with more than 600 people showing up to the county health department for voluntary HIV testing, according to contemporaneous reports.

At least 13 victims, mostly teenagers, were found to be HIV-positive — the youngest being 13 years old.

In 1998, Williams, then 22, pleaded guilty to statutory rape and reckless endangerment. He served a 12-year prison sentence at Wende Correctional Facility in Erie County, and in 2010, was kept confined under the Sexual Offender Management and Treatment Act of 2007, which retains offenders deemed to have a “mental abnormality,” one that makes them incapable of controlling their sexual impulses.

In 2014, Williams was discharged to — and continues to reside at — the Central New York Psychiatric Center in Marcy, N.Y., one of three psychiatric facilities where New York state sends its most infamous squad of sexual deviants.

Now 40 and known as “Shyteek Johnson,” Williams is one of over 300 civilly-committed individuals residing in these facilities, the others being St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center in Ogdensburg, N.Y., and the Manhattan Psychiatric Center.

Their release date? To be determined.

Sex offenders virtually “disappear” in civil confinement, undergoing long rituals of behavioral and psychological therapy, from pinpointing and managing sexual arousal factors to polygraph tests uncovering dark sexual histories.

If successful, they can be released into the community under intensive supervision. If unsuccessful and still deemed a public risk, they can remain in confinement — indefinitely. And while some in the public see this as a plus, concerns are already being raised by state officials about the sustainability and cost of a program that continues to grow in numbers with few success stories to cite.

According to the New York State Office of Mental Health, civil confinement, while taking in less than 1 percent of New York’s approximately 39,500 registered sex offenders, has seen a consistently growing population.

In 2007, the number of civilly confined individuals in New York state was 21. By 2016, this number jumped to 311, with the state reportedly shelling out nearly $55 million a year, approximately $175,000 per individual, for the program. This, according to a report from the Democrat and Chronicle, is nearly three times the cost for an inmate in state prison.

Additionally, the chances of getting discharged from civil confinement are slim. From 2007 to 2014, psychiatric examiners evaluated more than 800 individuals to determine eligibility for discharge. Of that number, only 18 were recommended to be discharged to intensive supervision.

The solution?

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in his most recent budget, called for improved collaboration with the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, or DOCCS, to ensure sex offenders complete treatment programs while they’re still in prison. The goal, he proposed, is to decrease the number of sex offenders who transfer to civil confinement.

An analysis of the budget by the state Senate Finance Committee determined this would lead to $1.1 million in savings and the reduction of 30 full-time employees.

State Sen. Cathy Young, R-Olean, acknowledged the proposal has gray areas.

“(The Finance Committee) is saying there will be a savings in OMH, but there isn’t a corresponding expenditure over at DOCCS,” she said. “You would think there would be an increased cost as far as staffing and so on … but that’s not reflected in the Governor’s budget.”

Young said she and her colleagues have posed questions to the Governor’s office, but have yet to receive more specifics.

“It’s hard to judge what exactly the proposal would mean at this point,” she said. “I’ve always been very concerned about sex offenders who are violent, predatory and unlikely to change their ways … that’s why we have civil management in New York state. Treatment is already being done in DOCCS, but whether DOCCS is equipped to handle all the complex issues involved in treating serious sex offenders (needs to be further addressed). The goal is to bring higher-quality treatment to the jail.”

Assemblyman Andy Goodell, R-Jamestown, similarly called for more details.

“I would certainly support this proposal, but we don’t want to eliminate the availability of services outside of prison until we’re sure the services in prison are effective,” he said.

Since 2007, sex offenders in medium- and maximum-security prisons have been given an enhanced treatment regimen, including a 24-week counseling program, complete with licensed psychologists and social workers.

Goodell said it is still unclear how Cuomo’s proposal will add to this treatment and that the issue will likely come up in the Assembly’s pending budget discussions. DOCCS did not respond to questions posed by the OBSERVER.

In the meantime, the notion of treating and somehow “curing” sex offenders may seem a bit far-fetched, especially for victims. Despite a recent study highlighted by the American Psychological Association that shows sexual recidivism rates just 9.9 percent for treated offenders, the legacy of people like Williams is hard to put away. After all, how many people like Williams will continue to crop up? How much more will it cost to change them, if they can be changed at all?

Comments on this article may be sent to editorial@observertoday.com

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