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Advocates Push For Early Release of Severely Ill Sex Offenders

A prisoner rights advocate thinks lawmakers should loosen restrictions on medical parole eligibility for sex offenders. A top state lawmaker on criminal justice issues agrees with her but says the issue is just too politically toxic.

An inmate sleeps in his cubicle in the geriatric unit of the Estelle Prison in Huntsville.

Charles Dill spent 14 years in prison after being convicted of indecency with a child in Collin County. His wife, Helga, recalls how he suffered from heart problems behind bars and had several operations.

Three weeks after his release in 2014, he died. His wife says she learned later that he had leukemia. She thinks the state's refusal to release her husband earlier, like they sometimes do for other inmates with severe medical issues, was both cruel and a waste of taxpayer resources. She's hoping that lawmakers will consider changing the state's rules regarding medical release of sex offenders next session.

One top lawmaker on criminal justice issues sympathizes with Hegla Dill's point of view but believes his colleagues won't touch the thorny issue out of fear of how it may be used against them.

"It takes 15 or 20 minutes to explain it, and somebody beats you up in a 30-second TV commercial: 'John Smith supported paroling sex offenders,'" said state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat and chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

When Texas prisoners become so sick that they are deemed too incapacitated to be a public threat and have just months to live, prison doctors will sometimes recommend them for medical parole.

That option is not available to inmates who were convicted for sexual offenses unless they are in a vegetative state.

Helga Dill recalled how the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles blocked her husband's medical parole efforts three times, she said. The board eventually released him from his 20-year sentence with standard parole. She is now an advocate for other sex offenders in Texas prisons.

Inmates with terminal illnesses or requiring long-term care like her husband are not physical threats to their communities anymore and should be released into nursing homes or back home, with electronic monitors, saving the state millions in health care costs, said Helga Dill, former chairman of the Texas Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (Texas CURE).

Helga Dill said she fought for five years to secure the early release of a blind, double-amputee prisoner. The struggle, she said, was over the fact he was a sex offender. He was in no position to harm another person, Dill said.

"We want to make sure people understand that these guys are not hurting anybody," she said.

Under medical parole, officially known as Medically Recommended Intensive Supervision, the parole board approves early parole and release of offenders with terminal illnesses or other severe illnesses or disabilities, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The parole board decides each case based on recommendations from the Texas Correctional Office of Medical and Mental Impairments, which screens prisoners.

Sex offenders who aren't in a "persistent vegetative state or do not suffer from organic brain syndrome with significant to total mobility impairment are not eligible for MRIS," according to the department. 

While Whitmire, who chairs the Senate committee that oversees the state's prison system, supports re-examining the issue, his counterpart in the House doesn't agree.

"It is unlikely that we would lessen the stringent guidelines for the MRIS program as it relates to these offenders," said Martha Bell Liner, chief of staff to state Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, who chairs the House Corrections Committee "Chairman Murphy's official stance is that the safety of all Texans is his top priority, and we do not want to take any actions that would erode the safety of our communities."

As of 2014, it cost Texas $54.89 a day to support prisoners and $4.04 for those on parole supervision, according to the Legislative Budget Board. Sick prisoners can cost significantly more.

Some years, the state's costs for caring for certain particularly sick prisoners have hit $1 million, Whitmire said adding that if their illness effectively neutralizes them as a threat to society, the issue becomes a fiscal concern.

"If they're a public safety concern, I wouldn't be for them being out. End of conversation," Whitmire said. "But if my colleagues and others are worried about the politics of letting someone out that has a serious crime 20, 30 years ago that is now unable to pose a public threat, put them in a nursing home that is supervised."

Whitmire said expanding eligibility for medical parole would be tough but smart policy.

A major hurdle to overcome might be the general perception that sex offenders have a high recidivism rate, said Mary Sue Molnar, executive director of Texas Voices For Reason and Justice, an advocacy group that promotes changing laws affecting people who have to register as sex offenders. More than 87,000 people are on the state's registry, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

A majority of that population does not commit another sex offense after being released, Molnar said, pointing to findings from around the country, as well as a 1997 Texas report, which found that 4 percent of sex offenders released from prison during a three-year period were arrested again in relation to a new sex crime.

"There's perception, and there's myth, and then there's truth," Molnar said. "I think they need to start looking at the research before they start making that decision."

Despite his support for changing the current rules, Whitmire said he doesn't plan to file a bill next session because he believes it will go nowhere. Supporting medical parole for certain sex offenders may save money but remains politically toxic, he said.

"But if you're too scared," he said, "you shouldn't be in this business."

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Courts Criminal justice Jim Murphy John Whitmire Texas Department Of Criminal Justice