Hundreds of sex-offender cases to be heard in Oneida County

Rocco LaDuca

Oneida County is likely to see dozens, eventually hundreds, of court cases in coming years to determine whether sex offenders should be civilly confined, the region’s top judge says.

Already, the county is handling more than 85 percent of Central New York’s civil confinement cases, and that number is only expected to increase with time, Fifth Judicial District Administrative Judge James Tormey said.

Since the state enacted a civil commitment law last March, 56 sex offender cases have proceeded in Oneida County, compared to six cases in Onondaga County, and one case each in Jefferson and Herkimer counties, officials said.

With four state prison facilities located in Oneida County, the county would naturally host most of the proceedings as inmates convicted of sex crimes face possible civil commitment upon their parole, Tormey said.

“We’re trying to make the statute work, and that’s been the most rewarding aspect of this whole thing,” Tormey said. “This is a very complicated statute, and we’re putting our own brand of procedure on this, as well as our belief in how justice is served.”

After presiding over all of the cases himself since April, Tormey said he’s confident the judicial system in Oneida County and surrounding counties can handle the mushrooming caseload.

“It’s under control now, and it’s working very well,” Tormey said of the new judicial process.

“Everybody needed to cooperate to make this work, and thank God they did,” he said. “It’s become a smooth operation, and justice is being done for everybody involved.”

Ceremonial courtroom used

Last summer, Tormey led a search for possible locations in the region to conduct such hearings.

After local concerns that the state would choose Griffiss Business and Technology Park in Rome, N.Y., or the Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Center in West Utica, N.Y., civil confinement hearings have taken place at the Oneida County Court House, often in the ceremonial courtroom.

The civil confinement process is a complex one, with required hearings eventually leading to a possible trial.

Many cases in are approaching the trial stage, and Tormey has already begun distributing the caseload to various state Supreme Court justices.

Oneida County has 16 trials scheduled in the weeks ahead to determine whether a sex offender previously incarcerated in prison suffers from a mental abnormality, officials said.

If such a finding is reached, a judge would then decide whether the offender should be civilly committed or released under “strict and intensive supervision.”

Before most of these trials get under way, however, Tormey said he plans on holding a training seminar later this month to educate district judges on how to handle such proceedings.

Legislators comfortable

So far, state legislators said they are satisfied with how the new law is being followed.

“My understanding is that they have been going pretty smoothly,” state Assemblywoman RoAnn Destito, D-Rome, said of the proceedings. “But I think there’s always room for improvement. The program itself probably needs to be reviewed after a certain period of time, both by the Office of Mental Health and the Office of Court Administration.”

State Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Rome, likewise said he is not aware of any major concerns regarding the law and the sex offender treatment program. However, Griffo said he believes a long-term solution needs to still be pursued to address the problem of sex -offender recidivism.

Griffo said he would prefer sex offenders receive longer prison terms instead of civil commitment. But in the meantime, Griffo said he wants reassurance that civil commitment facilities remain secure and offenders will be returned to their point of origin upon release.

“We passed the law on civil confinement, so we will have to give it time,” Griffo said. “As we undertake this evaluation and examination, there may be some adjustments and modifications that have to be made. And we will have to assure that proper resources will be provided to get the intended results, whether it’s facility-wise or staff-wise.”


Legal questions

Because the state civil confinement law for sex offenders is still fairly new, Fifth Judicial District Administrative Judge James Tormey said some legal and procedural questions have arisen and needed to be resolved:

- Whether mental hygiene lawyers are entitled to all related information from the state Attorney General’s Office, which prosecutes the civil commitment cases.

- Whether lawyers can be present during psychiatric exams before probable cause hearings to determine whether a sex offender suffers from mental abnormality, and during trial preparation.

Housing sex offenders

As more civil confinement cases take place in Oneida County, a psychiatric center and a state prison are prepared to house more sex offenders.

The Central New York Psychiatric Center in Marcy, N.Y., is housing 78 sex offenders, but the facility has room for 118, said Jill Daniels, spokeswoman for the state Office of Mental Health.

Overall, 114 sex offenders are being civilly confined across the state, she said.

A second facility at nearby Mid-State Correctional Facility in Marcy is being renovated and expected to be ready for occupancy this fall, Daniels said.

So far, no Office of Mental Health patient has been released from civil confinement by completing the sex offender treatment program, Daniels said.