A Virginia legislator is renewing his push to allow castration of sex offenders as an alternative to the increasing costs of detaining and treating them after they've served their prison sentence.
Sen. Emmett Hanger's bill would require the state to study the use of physical castration as an alternative to costly civil commitment for those deemed sexually violent predators. The General Assembly approved similar legislation four years ago, but then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine vetoed it.
While opponents call the procedure barbaric and the proposal heavy-handed, Hanger argues castration is cost-effective for the state and could provide a cure for some offenders.
"I don't think it's radical at all," said Hanger, R-Augusta. "It's just something that's not typically the thing you want to bring up in polite conversation, but again the whole subject area is not for polite conversation.
"We're talking about people who are so driven because of the tendencies from the chemicals and the hormones inside their body to perform heinous acts. In that context, I think it's very appropriate to talk about something that could, perhaps, be a partial cure for them."
Eight other states allow for some form of castration for sex offenders, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Only Louisiana and Texas allow for physical castration -- the surgical removal of the testes -- while other states opt for chemical castration through medications that reduce testosterone, which fuels a man's sex drive.
Hanger acknowledges that castration isn't the answer for all offenders but said studies have shown it to work on many. He said Virginia must come up with alternatives to civil commitment, which costs the state about $100,000 per offender each year.
"We have such need for our scarce resources and there's such a resistance to creating additional revenue to deal with core services, that spending money unnecessarily for a program like this, I think is a crime in and of itself," Hanger said.
Virginia is one of 20 states that have a civil commitment program. An offender is eligible if he has committed certain sex crimes and a psychiatrist determines he has a mental abnormality -- like being anti-social -- that makes him likely to offend again. A judge or jury makes the final determination.
Commitments shot up dramatically after a change in the law in 2006 that expanded the list of qualifying crimes from four to 28 and changed the test used to determine if an offender was likely to re-offend.
As a result, the program's budget ballooned from $2.7 million in 2004 to an expected $24 million this year.
Gov. Bob McDonnell has proposed spending nearly $70 million over the next two years to meet the increasing demands, including opening a new facility because the 300-bed secure treatment center that opened in 2008 will be full this year.
Castration is an effective treatment when it is combined with therapy and other aspects of treatment, but it is not a cure-all, said Dr. Fred Berlin, director of the Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit at Johns Hopkins University.
Berlin said opponents often compare castration to cutting off the hands of a thief, but he rebuffs that argument.
"This really gets at the motivation, the force that's energizing people who are committing these crimes rather than simply interfering with their inability to perform," he said.
But Berlin said there is no reason to subject offenders to the trauma of surgery when chemical castration accomplishes the same goal.
"It shouldn't simply be a rush to judgment and certainly shouldn't be done for punitive reasons with the idea that, 'We're going to castrate the bums,'" he said.
Mary Devoy, founder of Reform Sex Offender Laws of Virginia, called Hanger's proposal "a great bill with one shocking flaw."
"When abuse and mutilation of a human being is presented as an acceptable alternative to responsible treatment and housing for those deemed as sexually violent predators there exists a fault of reason," she said.
Devoy supports the part of Hanger's bill that also requires the state to examine the criteria for commitment and housing options for those released from the program. Currently, there are no halfway houses in Virginia that will take in these sex offenders, and officials will not allow offenders to be released unless they have family or friends living in Virginia to chaperone them.
Dr. Steven Wolf, director of the state's Office of Sexually Violent Predator Services, estimates at least 25 offenders could be released and monitored in the community if they had suitable housing. The cost would be about $21,000 a year for each offender, or about a fourth of holding someone in the psychiatric facility.
Some legislators balk at releasing offenders for fear they will commit another crime, but Hanger said there must be a balance between keeping the public safe and breaking the state's bank.
"We're going to have to establish a policy where we punish them, we treat them the best we can, but it's simply inappropriate policy to put them in an expensive treatment program that doesn't work and just keep them there needlessly," he said. "I think we're going to have to get a happy medium as far as public safety versus the cost."