DALLAS (AP) — A Texas agency is scrambling to relocate more than 100 sex offenders after two companies backed out of a contract to provide post-prison housing, but officials say inquiries about shuttered jails, holding facilities and numerous other options have left them no closer to a solution.
Marsha McLane, executive director of the state's Office of Violent Sex Offender Management, is looking for land — either public or private — that could hold the 185 former inmates who are currently under the state's care.
Felons convicted of at least two violent sexual offenses are given a judicial hearing as their prison sentences conclude. A state judge can determine that they remain a threat to public safety and commit them under the care of the agency, which has just 25 employees and a $6.9 million budget.
Beyond the 185 men currently in the program, another 178 prison inmates have been ordered to be placed in it upon their release — including 22 by the end of the year.
"This is not the most popular clientele to work with, but the state has tasked us by statute with the long-term supervision and treatment of civilly committed sex offenders," said Jessica Marsh, general counsel for the Texas agency. "And we take that responsibility very seriously. Especially the supervision."
The office has received praise for modifying operations that under a previous administration had drawn broad criticism for mismanagement. But state lawmakers and others say more needs to be done, pointing out that no offender in the civil-commitment program has been approved for release in its 15-year history.
They say suitable housing must also come with changes that make the program more focused on outpatient treatment rather than punitive measures.
Four companies contract with the state to provide the housing, but most of the inmates are under the care of the two that are dropping out.
Oklahoma-based Avalon Correctional Services houses many of the offenders in Dallas, El Paso and Fort Worth, and has told the office that it has until Aug. 31 to find other accommodations for the men. Avalon declined comment and referred questions to the state office.
Another large provider, GEO Group, which has regional offices in San Antonio and houses offenders in Houston, is contracting with the office on a month-to-month basis until the offenders can be placed elsewhere. The company said in a statement that its mission "no longer aligns" with housing them.
Marsh says her agency has already looked into 130 possible alternative locations. She said McLane will make another pitch Monday for a former state juvenile lockup in Beaumont, but Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick said "I don't see the community supporting this," based on emails and phone calls he's received.
Nicolas Hughes, a lawyer with the Harris County public defender's office who has represented some of the offenders, said while it's important to find a suitable location for the men, it's also critical to turn the civil-commitment program into a rehabilitative effort that incorporates "community-based mental health services."
He notes that current rules under which the men must live are so burdensome that violations are common, resulting in nearly half of those put into the program being returned to prison.
Marsh said her office isn't discounting the importance of treatment and care as it continues to search for somewhere to place the men.
"This is definitely our top priority," she said. "We want to make sure we're finding the safest housing possible for treatment, for supervision and for public safety."