Town hall meeting airs proposed sex offender program
The state’s top jail keeper met with Nome residents on Oct. 11 at Old St. Joe’s to explain his vision of setting up a sex offender treatment program at the privately operated Seaside Community Residential Center on Front Street.
Halfway houses help prison inmates in the last six months of their sentences to make a transition and become integrated into their communities. Helping inmates with rehabilitation increases public safety and reduces recidivism, according to the state Department of Corrections mission statement.
“The state is in fiscal crisis; each dollar has to be spent judiciously and wisely,” DOC Commissioner Dean Williams said at the town hall style meeting in Nome.
Enhancing Seaside services with a sex offender program would make Seaside safer from funding cuts, Williams said.
Williams resided in Nome 11 years. His resumé notes he spent more than 30 years working in the state’s justice system. He worked for 12 years as a juvenile justice officer, five years for the Department of Law and 14 years as Division of Juvenile Justice superintendent overseeing various facilities throughout the state.
Gov. Bill Walker tapped Williams for the head of corrections programs in January 2016.
The DOC along with other departments in the state needed to make dollars stretch, Williamson said in a letter sent to City of Nome administrators as well as Sen. Donny Olson and Rep. Neal Foster. This might be achieved with improving services and becoming more efficient in program delivery, Williams thought.
However, Seaside, along with several other such facilities in the state have been operating with an intolerable number of beds, Williams said. Indeed, the state’s prior contract with Seaside yielded a set fee for 42 beds, filled or not. This year, the DOC and Seaside restructured the contract to pay Seaside’s operator, GEO Group, $177 per day for a smaller number of beds—25—and $15 a day for each additional bed, still a lot for beds, sometimes even costing more than keeping persons in prison.
“We pay $1.7 million a year. We are paying for 50 spots,” Williams said.
In May this year, during the permitting procedure with the City, Seaside had housed an average of 36 persons in the first four months of 2017, according to figures provided by Bob Weston, Seaside facility director. About 50 percent of inmates come from the Seward Peninsula and about 50 percent come from the Kotzebue NANA region, according to Weston’s figures.
The solution, according to Williams: improve services and fill beds by starting up a sex offender treatment program at Seaside. Untreated sex offenders would thus become treated sex offenders. He wanted to find a solution with Nome citizens’ agreement and did not want to go against the community, Williams said, however, budget constraints might force him to take stringent measures.
“I already closed down Palmer [Correctional Facility],” a fantastic program, he said. He was willing to close down others for sake of budget, he added. Having a sex offender treatment program going on at Seaside would “provide another asset to us and it difficult to be cut,” Williams said.
The problem: In response to Nome citizens’ wishes, the City of Nome’s ordinance regulating privately run prison housing forbids having untreated sex offenders housed at Seaside on Front Street. The Council would have to amend the ordinance at section 3.30.020 (11) where it says the permit applicant agrees not to house untreated sex offenders or arsonists.
Williams arrived with Adam Rutherford, the head of state mental health programs. Bob Weston, Seaside facility director, Trey Watson, GEO Group senior manager, and AMCC Superintendent Sandy Martinson Anvil Mountain Correctional Center superintendent also attended. The correctional facilities folks sat along one long table in front of the room; Council members finished the line across the front sitting at another long table, all facing the audience. About 40 people attended, the greater number being employees of human services organizations, including AMCC correctional officers.
Williams greeted the crowd. One thing Williams did not come to do, he said, was to “sell you a plan” to house untreated sex offenders at Seaside. “We don’t want to attempt this unless you are with us,” he said.
Then Williams and others from the corrections group said a few words. They, and Williams, over the next two hours answered questions and gave information favorable to the new arrangement just in case people did want to applaud a new direction for Seaside.
“I’ll go as slow as you want me to go,” Williams said. A plan could be to start with five untreated sex offenders—from the region— at Seaside and see how it goes. A person certified in the sex offender treatment field would deliver the program. A possible scenario would be three to four hours a week for the Seaside program and a once a week session for AMCC. The program at AMCC would be weeks longer; Seaside inmates were in the last six months of incarceration, Sandy Martinson, AMCC superintendent said.
The sex offender treatment program that would give the person support in becoming employed and finding a place to live would provide offenders incentive and a way back home, Williams said. However, he made no bones about their need to be jailed.
“You deserve to be in prison. There is no doubt in my mind about that. You have broken trust with your community,” Williams said.
Currently, there are nine inmates who are sex offenders.
In July, when the Nome Common Council caught wind of Williams’ proposal to house sex offenders at Seaside, Council members showed themselves less than lukewarm. Councilman Tom Sparks, Mark Johnson and Stan Andersen voiced opposition to using the Front Street Facility to house untreated sex offenders.
Security standards at Seaside would keep the community safe, administrators said. Residents would be wearing electronic monitoring devices and could be tracked wherever they went. If a band worn by the person were cut, an alarm would notify facility staff, Watson said.
At Seaside, we “do a head count 24/7 every day of the year. We have 43 cameras in the facility,” Weston said. “Accountability is a big deal for us.”
Norton Sound Behavior Health Services Director Lance Johnson declared himself 100 percent in favor of a treatment program at Seaside. The DOC would link up to BHS for the sex offender treatment program.
“I do believe people deserve this treatment,” he said, adding that the person delivering the sessions would have gone through a long arduous program to get certified for sex offender treatment.
There are strict guidelines for treatment, according to Rutherford. There are only 20 certified in Alaska to provide sex offender treatment.
In a prepared speech at the podium, Barb Amarok, chair of the Bering Sea Women’s Group Board declared the organization’s support for the sex offender treatment at Seaside. “We hope it will decrease re-offenses,” she said. BSWG emphasizes safety, hope and dignity and overall safety of victims of sexual abuse. Amarok said the group did not want people to be revictimized. She hoped Seaside would be aggressively involved in programs and sanctions of sex offenders.
Nome resident Melissa Ford submitted a letter opposing placement of sex offenders in Seaside Center for treatment.
“As a long time citizen of Nome, a voter and a tax payer, I adamantly oppose the proposal of Nome becoming a sexual predator hub for the region,” she wrote. The original agreement prohibiting Seaside from housing sex offenders or arsonists should stand.
“By opening the halfway house to sexual predators, we endanger vulnerable populations in our community,” Ford said. “There is no compelling reason to invite sexual predators to stay at a halfway house, find employment and stay in Nome. We already have enough problems with domestic violence, sexual abuse of minors and rape. We do not need to invite more.”
Individuals will be going out into the community as part of the transitional setting and integration into the community—initially not, but as program goes through phases, participants would go out into the community for the reintegration process, Rutherford agreed.
“The program will be very selective. We won’t put child abusers [on work release] at schools,” Sandy Martinson said.
“We won’t fill beds just to fill beds [at Seaside],” Rutherford said.
Trey Watson, GEO Group, told how it is in Bethel.
“In Bethel, our halfway house is within feet of the women’s shelter. If the victim is in the shelter, we wait to place the offender in the facility,” he said.
That program had been operating since 2009, Rutherford said. Inmates went to the probation office a minimum of three hours a week. If someone drops out, they are remanded back into the system. There is high motivation in the halfway house because residents have something to lose.
At the halfway house, the person is under DOC control. When out the person will have control and followup through probation.
Participation in Nome would be voluntary, according to Sandy Martinson, AMCC superintendent.
How about if the state closes Seaside, would hiring more correctional officers to keep those inmates at AMCC wipe out any potential savings from Seaside closure?
“I’m not going to spend any more money. I could put 100 people in Goose Creek,” Williams declared.
Four Nome Common Council members attended the meeting: Stan Andersen, Jerald Brown, Doug Johnson and Adam Martinson.
Asked to give a recap of their impressions of the meeting, newly elected council members Doug Johnson and Adam Martinson indicated “on the fence” or “wait and see“ attitudes.
“I can go either way. I am educating myself,” Martinson said.
Andersen would wait to discuss it with Council. Councilman Jerald Brown saw a positive side.
“ We have to do something,” Brown said. Treatment needs to happen here rather than send people to Anchorage.
If the Council were to change the ordinance to allow sex offenders to be housed in Seaside Center, it would take two meetings including a public hearing, Tom Moran, city manager, told the group.
On Monday, Moran predicted the first reading of an ordinance change would occur at the Nov. 27 regular meeting of Nome Common Council. At that meeting the Council could vote the measure into second reading, public hearing and a vote on passage in two weeks, or give it the thumbs down Nov. 27.
Williams was ready to deal.
He would set up a program even if they put in a sunset clause or a three-year trial [the duration of a Seaside permit renewal]. “Give yourself a way out,” Williams said.
Nome Common Council holds the strings on Seaside because by City law the halfway house cannot exist without a permit from the City. The language is tight; The application asks for names of each and all people involved as owner or operator of the facility; asks for copies of the last two state inspections; the names of people who walked off from Seaside and the crimes they committed. After the City receives an application, the Council must hold a public hearing not less than 14 days or no more than 30 calendar days after receiving the application. No later than 30 days after the close of the public hearing, the Council must approve whether to approve the permit application.
It could be said that the DOC is holding a few cards, too. Closure of Seaside would impact City finances. Seaside employees include 14 full-time and three part time workers. It owns $370,000 in taxable personal property and $816,000 in taxable real property. Seaside also pays about $100,000 to Nome Joint Utility System each year.
John K. Handeland, NJUS utility manager, is all for the sex offender program. “Why start with only five?” he asked.
“It’s good to get them into treatment while you still have a hammer on them,” he said. “I don’t see any great risk to the community.
“Why don’t we have a program to treat as many as we can? Let’s allow arsonists and get maximum benefit from the programs,” Handeland added.
Nome established standards for privately operated correctional facilities in December of 1997. Allvest applied and received a permit to run a halfway house in April 1998; Cornell Corrections took over and renewed the permit in 2001 and every three years; GEO Group took over with a permit renewal in March 2013 and another permit renewal in May 2017.