State Sen. Drew MacEwen, R-Shelton, has introduced legislation, Senate Bill 5544, requiring “adequate” public notice when the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) considers placing sexually violent predators in nearby adult group homes.
MacEwen’s 35th legislative district seatmates, state Reps. Dan Griffey, R-Allyn, and Travis Couture, R-Allyn, are planning to introduce a companion bill in the state House.
Under state law, DSHS houses high-risk sex offenders after taking them into “civil custody” following their prison sentences because of their likelihood of reoffending. Initially, offenders taken into civil custody are housed at the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island. Some offenders are later moved elsewhere in Washington state. Under current law, heightened notice and public comment rules apply when an offender is moved to a secure facility but not when moved to a less-secure group home.
SB 5544 would close a loophole in state law by imposing public notice requirements on the DSHS when it moves sex offenders to low-security adult group homes operated by private vendors. The bill would require DSHS to provide opportunities for public notice and comment before contracting with group home operators who take sex offenders. The agency or vendor would be required to provide 14 days’ advance notice before public meetings, including ads in newspapers, on the radio and on TV. The bill would also require DSHS to contact local government planning agencies and coordinate public meetings to allow for input from neighbors and other interested parties.
Thurston County might have caused a delay in the planned Feb. 1 opening of a home for sex offenders near Tenino by notifying the owner that existing water permits are not adequate. Last Tuesday, the Thurston County Public Health and Social Services Department told Supreme Living Residential Care Services, the company seeking to open the home, it would need to apply for new permits for drinking water and septic tanks.
According to MacEwen, Thurston County’s water permit requirement is likely to delay the opening of the home, providing county officials time to consider county zoning changes.
Tenino-area residents formally learned of the plan to open the home during a public meeting earlier this month, giving them less than a month before the first convicted sex offender was scheduled to arrive.
Supreme Living had approached Thurston County in May with a proposal for a home that would house 11 offenders. But when informed by county officials the proposal would require a permit allowing the county to impose conditions, Supreme Living was able to circumvent the process by reducing the number of offenders that would be housed to five, allowing them to gain approval from DSHS instead, the lawmakers seeking the new legislation claim.
“The people in the area are telling us this is absolutely the wrong place to put a home for sex predators, and government needs to listen to them,” MacEwen said. “The house is in a rural area where law enforcement response times are long. It is adjacent to a lake where children attend summer camps. The state says these sex offenders are at a high risk of reoffending, yet the only security measures contemplated are ankle bracelets. What could possibly go wrong?”
The 35th legislative district lawmakers are hopeful their legislation will get a quick hearing and prevent communities from being caught off-guard in the future.
“But the worst part of the story is that the community never got a chance to speak up and head this off,” MacEwen said. “When the state plans to move sex predators into the neighborhood, people deserve a chance to be heard.”
Couture praised the Tenino-area residents for taking action against what he called a “misguided and dangerous plan.”
“Government has a fundamental responsibility to protect the people of Washington from violent sexual predators, and I am working with state and local officials to ensure that happens. In addition to better public notice requirements, facilities that house dangerous criminals must have high security standards and must be held liable if they fail to protect the public. We also need more local control over placement of these facilities to ensure they’re located far from schools, parks, and other vulnerable sites. The status quo is simply not acceptable,” Couture said.
Last week the 35th district legislators met with officials representing DSHS and the Department of Corrections. The officials told the legislators heightened public notice requirements do not apply when sex offenders are placed in “less restrictive alternative” housing, such as group homes.
“Our meeting with state officials exposed gaps in the current system that put communities at risk,” Griffey said. “At the same time, it highlighted what we need to do to protect our communities.”
Griffey had previously helped pass a 2019 bill eliminating the statute of limitations for felony sex crimes involving minors under the age of 16. According to Griffey, when state agencies place sex offenders in communities, they have a responsibility to ensure people who live nearby are informed and protected.
“They can’t just punt on public safety,” Griffey said.