(The Center Square) – The Center Square reported that the state Sex Offender Policy Board was examining a recommendation to end community notifications for convicted sex offenders, based on a document referenced at its Sept. 21 meeting.

Although board members have since insisted that there are no plans to end community notifications, the board last year recommended the Legislature amend a state statute that one county says would remove a requirement for public notice and public comment before siting and permitting less restrictive alternative facilities for violent sex offenders.

The recommendation was included in its 2022 report to the Legislature regarding implementation of Chapter 236. According to the Department of Social and Health Services, LRAs are housing available for convicts in lieu of being housed in solitary confinement within the department’s Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island. Those LRAs can consist of community housing operated by DSHS or a private provider.

Under state law, DSHS facilities have to must adhere to “applicable state and local zoning and building codes, general housing requirements, availability of public services, and other considerations” within a separate state statute that requires public notice and a public hearing for any special use or conditional permits for those facilities.

In its 2022 report, SOPB recommended that the Legislature remove sections of the statute, including “applicable state and local zoning and building codes” and “other considerations identified in accordance with RCW 71.09.315.”

In a May 31 letter to SOPB Chair Brad Meryhew obtained by The Center Square, the Thurston County Board of Commissioners argued that this recommendation “strips citizens of their right to be informed, and the rights of local governments to be involved in the placement and siting process. Further, this allows DSHS and the Department of Corrections (DOC) to place SVPs [Sexually Violent Predators] in communities without providing education and the opportunity for citizens to ask questions in a collaborative forum.”

Noting that no local government association was represented on the SOPB subcommittee that drafted the recommendation, the county letter asserts that “these recommendations are a passive attempt at removing county, city, and community involvement from the process and allows the state to circumvent zoning and building protections.”

SOPB also recommended in its report removing a state requirement prohibiting any LRAs from being located within 500 feet of child care facilities and K-12 public or private schools. In its letter, the Thurston County Board of Commissioners criticized that proposal. While acknowledging that “recidivism research does not support the inclusion of a blanket residency restriction such as the 500 ft rule, Thurston County feels that public perception should be a consideration. A 500 ft rule adds an extra layer of comfort for those within the community.”

In its report, SOPB argued that the 500 feet rule and other zoning restrictions undermines the concept of “fair share principles of release,” meaning that counties accept the number of convicts under conditional release in proportion to the number of residents from that county that are imprisoned. The report also argued that these restrictions “make it nearly impossible to place LRA housing in more urban areas, such as Seattle and other cities. This makes it less likely to place people in counties with a higher population density.”

Thurston County recently became embroiled in controversy over the proposed siting of a privately-run LRA located in Tenino. The county argues that DSHS failed to uphold the law regarding public notices, while DSHS claimed it had no legal obligation since it was a privately-run facility and not subject to the same stipulations as agency-managed LRAs, a claim the county disputes.

“Failing to involve the local government and community prior to siting and initiating a contract leads to distrust in DSHS, DOC, and other involved entities,” the Board of Commissioners letter states. “The one public meeting hosted by Supreme Living only occurred at the request of the county, and the CEO provided the community with inaccurate and inflammatory information. This created an incredibly toxic and hostile environment, and the county was left with the responsibility to ensure safety in the community and that the public was provided with accurate information.”

A new SOPB report to the Legislature was discussed at its June 1 meeting, but has not been released on its site.

When The Center Square reached out to Thurston County to inquire about how it interpreted SOPB’s recommendation to affect public notices and public hearings, Criminal Justice Regional Program Manager Leah Landon recommended reaching out to SOPB “regarding their past recommendations and reports.”

In a June 2 response to the Thurston County Board of Commissioners letter, Meryhew wrote that “it has been referred to the SOPB full board members and distributed widely to our 5163 Implementation Subcommittee and stakeholders, and will be discussed at our future board meeting(s).”

The Center Square reached out to Meryhew multiple times for comment on the recommendation and the Thurston County Board of Commissioners’ letter, but did not receive a response.