Council rules out untreated sex offenders at Seaside Center
When the owners of Seaside Center halfway facility sought a permit from the City some years ago to operate on Front Street, the Nome Common Council responded to public sentiment by granting the permit on the condition that the Dept. of Corrections would not house untreated sex offenders or arsonists at the downtown facility.The Nome Common Council once again resisted recent entreaties from the Alaska Dept. of Corrections and private prison operators GEO Care to allow housing sex offenders at Seaside Center.
At its regular meeting Dec. 11, the Council voted 3 to 2 against relaxing the City ordinance to permit untreated sex offenders to reside at Seaside to participate in a sex offender treatment program. Two weeks ago, the Council tied 3 to 3 whether to introduce the measure; Mayor Richard Beneville per his duty to break ties did so with a yes vote. Monday night, none of the Council members changed his position, Councilman Lew Tobin was absent along with his “yes” vote.
At the most recent vote on Dec. 11, “yes” votes came from Councilman Jerald Brown and Councilman Doug Johnson. Councilmen Mark Johnson, Stan Andersen and Adam Martinson put their thumbs down.
The Council approved amendments to the measure to allow sex offenders by excluding from Seaside those convicted of sexual abuse of a minor, importing only Nome region residents, and ruling out work release for sex offenders, but the main motion did not fly.
Before the vote on the amendment, Barbara Cromwell, a forensics nurse who is a member of the local Sex Abuse Response Team informed Council members that excluding those who had committed sex crimes against children would exclude many from treatment.
“In our region, the majority of sex crimes are against children,” Cromwell said. “For the majority of children, the perpetrators are family members, extended family or known to the family,” meaning untreated sex offenders would be in the proximity of children, even young victims.
Members of the public participated on both sides of the debate along with Council, and representatives of GEO Care and state Dept. of Corrections. Discussion went on for over an hour during public comment period and during the formal public hearing before the ordinance change came up for a final vote.
Public in favor of the program spoke generally, while people against named their fears—location near the post office, bank and a popular restaurant, possible escapes, security issues, amount of supervision during work release, effect on recidivism (rate of re-offending) local or out-of-area-offenders.
We vote yes
Lance Johnson, director at Norton Sound Health Corp. Behavioral Health Service, in his statements backing the proposed Seaside Center treatment program startled some among the audience and on the Council with a clarification that NSHC did not have any sex offender treatment services, a surprise to some.
“Individual providers have to do this. It has to be through DoC,” he said. “People will be out in the community. Not having treatment doesn’t make sense. People receiving their treatment services in a safe environment does make sense.
“As a person who works on budgets, it makes sense economically,” Johnson said.
He strongly urged the Council to approve having a sex offender treatment program at Seaside.
Further, it turned out that AMCC does not currently have sex offender treatment. DoC was in the process of starting a program at Anvil Mountain Correctional Center, according to Superintendent Sandy Martinson in a detailed information handout available at Monday’s Council meeting. Beginning next month, DoC will be able to offer sex offender specific treatment to men and women on probation or parole for sex offense in the Norton Sound area, according to a DoC release.
The Norton Sound area has approximately 15 sex offenders at any time on probation or parole for a sex offense residing in the community, according to figures from DoC.
“Any treatment is better than no treatment,” resident Sue Steinacher said from the podium.
Nome Community Center and Danielle Slingsby sent letters of support to the City, which were enclosed in the meeting packet.
We vote no
Trinh Johnson took the podium to voice her concern about the location on Front Street.
“I feel it is a great risk to have sex offenders where we go to eat and bank. There are kids playing around,” Trinh Johnson said. “I don’t feel it is safe for us.”
Resident Melissa Ford spared no passion in opposing the use of Seaside Center to house sex offenders.
“ I am opposed to this. We have created a moral issue out of a fiscal issue,” Ford said, alluding to the DoC-GEO Corp. desire to fill beds at Seaside. “It’s a six-month thing to fill some beds.”
“If it was a treatment issue, we would be rushing forward to have a treatment program available at AMCC,” Ford said. After successful treatment at AMCC, then sex offenders could go to Seaside for the re-integration program, she suggested.
Ford cited her research that showed only 54 percent of sex offenders have successful treatment.
Denise Gilroy said she could distill two issues from the discussion, which should be defined and set in stone—the treatment and security.
Only minimum low risk offenders will be at Seaside Center under intense treatment, Martinson said. The treatment would be court ordered.
The ordinance under discussion did not contain particulars on the Seaside Center program, Councilman Stan Andersen observed.
Martinson responded that the sex offender housing design was not set in stone; the Council could limit the length of the trial period, limit the number of participants, specify a date certain for the sex offender occupancy to sunset.
Councilman Mark Johnson wanted to know why treatment could not be performed at AMCC.
Not enough space, Martinson said. Seaside has classrooms.
Bob Weston, Seaside facility director ran down the security measures in place at Seaside where there are many cameras and a tight system for checking in and out of work release programs, including a search for contraband upon return from work release. Female prisoners and male prisoners are substantially separated. Residents are monitored 24 hours, seven days a week.
With cameras, “we can see the hair on their knuckles if we desire,” Weston said.
DoC personnel and GEO Care reiterated that untreated sex offenders who had served jail time already lived in the community while on probation. DoC had put them on a waiting list to go to Anchorage or Fairbanks for treatment. In the Seaside program, pre-screened, low-risk offenders could get treatment while being conditioned for re-entry to the community and get help to find housing and employment. Anyone who did not cooperate with the treatment opportunity would go back to AMCC, according to Sandy Martinson and Robert Weston, Seaside Center facility director.
High risk sex offenders who did not qualify would remain at AMCC to receive treatment.
“Housing sex offenders at Seaside while completing treatment would provide a controlled environment that allows closer monitoring of this population as they transition into the community, rather than placing untreated sex offenders directly into the community while attending outpatient treatment,” Martinson said in a release.
State DoC uses the “containment model” to supervise sex offenders, which comprises specific treatment, a specialized trained probation or parole officer, and regular lie detector tests.
The change in prisoner profiles at Seaside came up at a Council meeting Aug. 14 when Tom Moran reported on a meeting he attended with Dean Williams, Dept. of Corrections commissioner.
Williams had flown into Nome in July for a drop-in meeting with Moran and Beneville. The meeting did not include the Nome Common Council. At the meeting and in a subsequent letter, Williams cited budget cuts and empty beds that could be filled at Seaside except for Nome’s “stringent” requirements on the type of prisoners that could be housed there. DoC wanted to run a sex offender treatment program at Seaside Center, which would mean sending untreated sex offenders downtown from AMCC for the last six months of their treatment.
Williams early on assured that DoC would not try to force the issue without community approval. However, he said, in times of budget shortfalls, the community would have to accept stringent measures should the sex offender transfer not be allowed. City administrators provided figures on revenue lost should the threat to close Seaside came true: property tax on around $800,000 worth of real estate and around $100,000 revenue annually to Nome Joint Utility System for power, water and sewer service at Seaside Center.
The public had opportunity to attend public hearings in Council Chambers and at a two-hour town hall session with Williams and other DoC officials as well as representatives from GEO Care, the private company that operates halfway houses in Alaska.
Toward the end of the session, Mark Johnson and Brown quizzed Weston on whether filling beds at Seaside Center motivated getting sex offenders into a treatment plan.
Heck no, was Weston’s stance. Well, maybe partly, Martinson said. There was a large number of good reasons to be served by setting up a treatment program at Seaside, she said.
Well, yeah, Weston ‘fessed up. GEO Care was a for profit company; he was a stock holder. But his fear was that if he didn’t have enough beds filled, state DoC might cancel his contract to operate the halfway house, Weston said. The five-year contract renewal comes up in 2019, he said.
“I am very hopeful DoC follows through on providing sex offender treatment at AMCC,” Brown said during Council comments on the agenda.
In big news, Moran reported that he has the word from Norton Sound Economic Development that the Nome’s Community Benefit Share of $150,000 is available. Applications from entities running community benefit programs must be in at 5 p.m. on Jan. 4. The requests for funding would be considered at the Jan. 8 Council meeting, Moran said. He would advertise on social media, Moran said. Brown urged Moran to take out an ad in the Nome Nugget.
In other business, the Council approved a list of projects City of Nome’s state legislative priorities:
• Water and sewer infrastructure improvements, $4.3 million.
• Design of Arctic deep draft port, $1.6 million.
• Full funding of Power-Cost Equalization program.
• Nome road improvements.
• Full support of a statewide port construction bond package.
The Council also unanimously endorsed a “wishlist” for federal legislative priorities:
• Arctic deep draft port in Nome.
• Developing alternative energy production resources—geothermal and energy storage technology and enhanced energy storage.
• Small boat harbor turning basin dredging depth.
• Water and sewer infrastructure improvements.
• Utility, public works and emergency response equipment storage building and supporting office facilities.
• Drug awareness, education and treatment.
Andersen asked that the list be reordered to put school capital projects in third position.
The Council adopted an ordinance relaxing requirements for serving on the Nome Port Commission to include applicants from outside Nome’s city limits. During discussion prior to the vote, Mark Johnson said a number of people had contacted him concerning people who live outside the city limits and did not pay property taxes being able to serve on a commission.
Lots of those people also owned property within the city, Andersen countered. Mark Johnson also asked whether the Nome Port Commission had been asked their opinion. “We push things without vetting and here we are in second reading of the ordinance,” he said.
Moran said he sat down with Port Director Joy Baker and Mayor Beneville and discussed putting the ordinance on the agenda.
The Council sets requirements for serving on commissions, Brown observed.
“Paying property tax isn’t everything,” Beneville added. “The port affects people outside of Nome.”
The City received four applications for a port commission vacancy—Gay Sheffield, Russ Rowe, Shawn Pomrenke and Tom Vaden. Rowe and Sheffield reside outside of town. Beneville appointed Russ Rowe to the Nome Port Commission with the Council’s approval.
Beneville reappointed Jessica Farley to her expired seat on the Nome Planning Commission.