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Jessica's Law pays dividend for some

Private mental health experts are collecting as much as $1.5 million a year from the state to assess sex offenders.

August 10, 2008|Charles Piller and Lee Romney | Times Staff Writers

A 2006 law intended to crack down on sex offenders has proved a bonanza for a small group of private psychologists and psychiatrists, 14 of whom billed California taxpayers last year for a half a million dollars or more each, a Times investigation found.

Among the 79 contractors hired by the state to evaluate sex offenders, the top earner was Robert Owen, a Central Coast psychologist who pulled in more than $1.5 million in 2007, according to state records reviewed by The Times.

That's equivalent to working 100 hours per week for 52 weeks at nearly $300 per hour -- top-scale in the private sector.

The No. 2 earner, psychologist Dawn Starr, billed the state $1.1 million in 2007, including $17,500 for a single day in April.

"It's been a boatload of money, to put it colloquially," psychologist Shoba Sreenivasan said during court testimony in November. Working only part time, she billed the state nearly $900,000 last year and at least $290,000 this year.

A civil servant doing the same work earns $101,000 to $110,000 annually.

Passed overwhelmingly by voter initiative in 2006, Jessica's Law mandated evaluations for thousands more sex offenders than in the past, to determine whether their conditions warrant hospitalization after criminal sentences have been served. All told, evaluators hired by the state earned more than $24 million in 2007.

It's unclear, however, what benefit the investment has yielded. There's been a nearly ninefold increase in evaluations and a threefold increase in recommendations for hospital commitment. But the actual number of commitments has remained essentially the same -- 41 in the 18 months before the law was passed, 42 in the 18 months afterward.

As the state confronts a budget shortfall of $15.2 billion, legislation to fund contractors to evaluate offenders through 2010 is expected to be voted on in the Assembly as soon as this week. Costs from Jessica's Law are expected to rise to several hundred million dollars annually over the next eight years, with further increases thereafter, according to projections by California's legislative analyst.

State officials defend their approach, saying they have moved aggressively to implement the voters' mandate.

"The public needs to appreciate how seriously we took the 70% vote for Jessica's Law, and public safety," said Stephen Mayberg, director of the state's Department of Mental Health, which manages the program. "Was it like a crisis? Yes. . . . Anybody who was willing to take on evaluations at any time and in any place could literally work around the clock."

Mayberg said the backlog of imminent parolees has diminished, so the cases now can be distributed more evenly among contractors. But fees will remain high and the overall costs about the same, even if million-dollar payments disappear.

He described the work of his department and its contractors thus far as "heroic."

Jessica's Law required evaluations for convicts nearing parole for a single sex offense -- even if committed as a juvenile -- in any of 35 categories. Before that law passed, at least two offenses were required in any of nine categories.

To induce contractors to work more and to attract new ones, the Department of Mental Health roughly doubled its compensation to $3,500 for an initial evaluation and $200 per hour for legal testimony and travel.

In 2005, state evaluators -- almost all contractors -- reported on 244 individuals. In 2007, the first full year after passage of Jessica's Law, they evaluated 2,201.

"They were shoving these things down our throats," said psychologist Thomas MacSpeiden, an evaluator who earned more than $400,000 last year. "They were just saying, 'take them, take them, take them!' "

MacSpeiden said he and others maintained high standards despite the need to shoehorn prisoner assessments around their day jobs. He called the pool of evaluators -- highly experienced medical doctors or Ph.D.s who receive special training from the state -- "the creme de la creme."

Even if it prevents only a few additional sex crimes, the broader net cast by Jessica's Law is necessary, said James Cahan, a Santa Clara County deputy district attorney who co-chairs the sexually violent predator committee of the California District Attorneys Assn.

"I've seen 5-year-olds curled up on the witness stand," he said. "Anyone who does this work knows that it's worth the money."

Prosecutors use the expert evaluations to argue that offenders should be confined indefinitely, in most cases to Coalinga State Hospital, for treatment as sexually violent predators. An inmate can be so designated if a jury affirms such a diagnosis by two psychologists or psychiatrists.

But some defense attorneys have aggressively questioned state evaluators, suggesting that their judgments were swayed by high fees. New research also shows far lower rates of recidivism by sex offenders than previously thought, an issue often raised to juries.

System ill prepared

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