SALT LAKE CITY — A proposed law that would allow state judges to commit violent sex offenders to a mental hospital is making its way through the Legislature.
HB14 has cleared the House, and the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee on Monday advanced it to the full Senate.
The measure grants judges the ability to civilly commit a sex offender who is mentally ill, but considered sexually violent or capable of “harmful sexual conduct.” Currently, the law only provides for commitments when people are considered physically violent.
“If you are a very serious risk to sexually attack somebody, whatever it be — pedophile, rape or anything like that — we want the ability to civilly commit you,” said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem.
Daw got behind the legislation because of the case of Lonnie Johnson, a registered sex offender who is charged in 4th District Court with 21 first-degree felony child sex abuse charges, including rape of a child.
Johnson was deemed incompetent for trial by a 4th District Judge in Provo and ordered to treatment at the Utah State Hospital.
Last year, however, doctors said they had failed to restore his mental competency and a judge said Johnson could no longer be held because his alleged sexual assaults could not be considered physically violent under state law.
Johnson's release not only angered family of the alleged victims, but Gov. Gary Herbert, who said he hoped legislators would address the problem in the system that allows a suspected child predator to go free.
Deputy Utah County Attorney Craig Johnson helped draft legislation and said a change in the law would give judges another tool to help prosecutors and state courts protect the community from child abusers and rapists. Many studies show recidivism rates among sex offenders can be high and sexual disorders can be difficult to treat, said the prosecutor, who is not related to the accused.
Daw's measure allocates $100,000 a year to pay for the costs of the change in the statute.
“I think the reason it’s not a law already is it’s a very, very unusual occurrence,” Daw said.
While the cases are rare, Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, is still balking at the cost estimate. He said a single case could tally $100,000 in a given year.
Romero also expressed concern about the latitude the law could potentially create.
“It might allow someone who is engaged in a sexual act with someone who is under the age of consent,” Romero said. “And that may create an opportunity for civil confinement.”
Lonnie Johnson, who moved to Oregon after his release, has never entered a plea to the charges filed against him, although both his mother and sister have said the allegations are false. The case remains pending and a daylong competency hearing is set for April.
Should a judge again find Lonnie Johnson incompetent, Daw said it's possible that another attempt to secure his civil commitment could likely be made if HB14 becomes law.
Contributing: Associated Press