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Poor Areas Pin Hopes on Facility for Sex Offenders

June 01, 2000|JAMES RAINEY and VERONIQUE de TURENNE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In much of California, economic development means luring the latest Internet start-up or building a pedestrian mall. But such paths to prosperity have largely evaded two rural communities that are poised to stake their economic futures on a less obvious growth opportunity: housing the state's sexually violent predators.

Civic leaders in the San Joaquin Valley town of Coalinga and in the Imperial Valley east of San Diego are competing to house a locked hospital that will one day hold 1,500 of California's most dangerous serial rapists and child molesters.

In campaigning for the first-of-its-kind state hospital, political leaders in both communities are venturing where few others dare tread. Their decision has caused some backlash, particularly in Imperial Valley, where opponents say they are sick of being the dumping ground for the state's wealthy and crowded cities.

But proponents remain unbowed. They talk about the hospital's potential for bolstering the local tax base and the spending power that 2,500 doctors, nurses and other hospital employees could bring to their tired burgs.

'A Lot of Economic Sense'

"We are a town that is battling for its survival economically," said Coalinga City Councilman Larry McVicar, an associate warden at a nearby prison. "I think a lot of people say 'Why not Coalinga?' It could have been General Motors or it could have been anything. The hospital just makes a lot of economic sense."

The need for such a facility arose four years ago when California lawmakers approved a law allowing the state to keep violent repeat sexual offenders in a locked hospital beyond the ends of their prison sentences.

Psychiatrists must first determine that an offender is likely to commit new crimes. Then a judge or jury must commit the inmate for treatment--a process that must be repeated every two years.

There are 314 such violent sexual predators at Atascadero State Hospital, one of several lockups for the criminally insane. But the facility doesn't have enough room for the 800 sexual predators expected to be in custody by 2004.

In the search for a hospital site strictly for sexual predators, the state Department of Mental Health has had a few basic criteria. The community must welcome the hospital and it must also be home to a state prison, because guards from the prison will provide perimeter security around the hospital.

But many of California's prison towns quickly rejected the hospital. The Tehachapi City Council voted down the facility last year, when more than 300 residents packed council chambers in opposition. Next, Soledad opted out. Then, late in 1999, the Atascadero City Council unanimously voted down the hospital. Many residents protested that the new facility would spoil the Central Coast town's reputation. Others said they worried about escapes.

John Rodriguez, head of the site search for the mental health agency, said he believes that only one person in the state has a harder job than his: the man who tries to sell reclaimed waste as drinking water.

"The term 'sexually violent predator' is a killer for us," said Rodriguez, director of long-term care for the Department of Mental Health. "But you can't hide from it. That is who these guys are."

Perhaps it should be no surprise that one of the two remaining contenders is in the heart of the poorest county in the state, a tract west of El Centro and adjacent to Centinela State Prison in Imperial County.

More than 22% of the county's adults are unemployed. About 31% of its residents live in poverty. Its broad, flat fields are among the state's most productive agricultural lands. But most of the jobs are seasonal and low-paying. The county seat of El Centro, population 37,000, has a core of spacious and well-tended homes, but it is girdled by neighborhoods of dusty apartments and crumbling shacks.

"Jobs are real, real hard to find down here," said Larry Ram, 38, a clerk at El Centro Book and Video in the city's old-fashioned downtown. "Those guys are going to be in lockup, you know, not running around in the streets, and we've already got two prisons in the area. What's the big deal?"

That sentiment is common in the business community and elsewhere in town. But others question how much the community would really gain from the new hospital.

Critics Skeptical About Benefits

"Most people here are thinking, 'If everyone else in the state has rejected this, why are we so lucky to still want it?' " said Tom Gargiulo, a 68-year-old rancher. "Many people feel like we are being taken advantage of down here, like we just don't have any clout and we are a dumping ground."

Gargiulo and other opponents question whether many of the hospital's doctors and nurses will live locally, or simply commute from San Diego. They are skeptical of the state's promises that it will help pay the costs for schools and other facilities.

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