MADISON (WKOW) -- The number of Wisconsin's most serious sex offenders in secure, mental health treatment is declining and raising questions among Wisconsin lawmakers and concerned citizens.
Wisconsin is a state that allows serious sex offenders to be committed through a civil court process to an indefinite, mental health detainment after their prison terms are complete.
State Department of Health Services records show since 1994, 427 offenders have been committed.
But in recent years, annual commitments have declined from 39 in 2006 to 15 last year.
A CNN report estimates the annual cost of a sex offender's mental health commitment at $150,000, nearly three times the average, annual cost of imprisoning an offender.
The state corrections department plays a lead role in recommending serious sex offenders for proposed mental health commitments, under Wisconsin's Chapter 980 statute. An end of confinement review board assesses transitioning sex offenders.
In a statement, corrections spokesman John Dipko made no reference to the state's costs when considering a proposed sex offender commitment.
"We carry out this mission...through a rigorous, administrative and clinical system to identify sex offenders who meet the criteria for civil commitment as a sexually violent person."
"And they are, by statutory definition, sexually violent persons," said Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin).
Lazich said the passage of tougher laws on sex offender crimes in recent years has likely led to longer prison terms for offenders and fewer commitment requests.
Rep. Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford) said recent lengthening of the minimum sentence in child rape cases is a factor.
"This law has forced judges to sentence sexually violent predators to prison. While they might have eventually ended up in a mental health facility, I think 25 year prison terms is a more fitting punishment for these monsters."
Madison attorney Eric Schulenburg, who has represented offenders as they faced commitment, agreed tougher sentences probably contributed to the commitment decline.
"I don't share the alarm that fewer people are facing Chapter 980 commitments."
The mental health of sex offenders in commitment is examined annually. Offenders have opportunity to petition courts for discharge from commitment.
The Wisconsin State Journal reported, in 2007, only twelve offenders had been discharged from indefinite commitment.
Offenders in commitment fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Health Services. DHS officials said as of last year, 53 discharges from commitment have taken place.
Lazich said she wants answers to the trend of discharges.
"Why are these people being released?"
"As a result of the evolution of risk assessment instruments, I believe that discharge is easier to pursue," Schulenburg said.
Schulenburg said evolving psychological standards more often show offenders no longer pose the level of risk that allows for life time, secure treatment.
One of the people discharged from commitment in March 2009 was Lindon Knutson, 61.
Knutson's criminal history spans four decades and includes several episodes of sexual violence and the kidnap of a Madison woman.
Before Knutson's discharge, he was approved for supervised release to a north side Madison neighborhood.
Knutson's relocation was protested by nearly one hundred community members, including neighbor Sue Ellen Maguire.
Maguire said her opposition cannot be chalked up to a not-in-my-backyard attitude.
"He was a violent sex offender."
Court records show Dane County judge David Flanagan relied on examiner William Merrick's assessment of Knutson's risk level in granting Knutson's discharge from indefinite commitment.
Merrick cited Knutson's good behavior, control over sexual deviancy, completion of treatment, and Knutson's advancing age as factors in determining Knutson was an acceptable risk.
"He is able to be discharged from his therapy," Merrick wrote.
In November 2009, Wilmar, Minnesota authorities arrested Knutson for allegedly requesting a church tour from a 73-year-old woman, and then beating, raping, and robbing her.
"I was disgusted and sad, and angry at the judge who let him go," Maguire said.
Merrick has not returned a call seeking comment. Knutson's attorney declined to discuss the case.
Knutson's court proceeding involved only Merrick's examination results. The state was represented by the attorney general, and an assistant attorney general did not hire another examining expert and did not oppose Knutson's discharge, relying on the sole examiner's conclusion.
Lazich said the Knutson case was disturbing. "I need to know more."
Online reporting by Tony Galli.