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SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah state lawmaker has proposed a bill to grant judges the authority to send sex offenders who are found mentally ill to be committed to a mental hospital.
HB14 has already cleared the house and has advanced through the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee. Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, said Tuesday his bill is on solid footing toward passage and should get a look in the full Senate within the next week or two.
The measure grants judges the ability to civilly commit a sex offender that 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," Daw said.
Daw got behind the legislation because of the case of Lonnie Johnson, who is a registered sex offender facing 20 additional sex charges. He was set free last April because of the distinction in the current law — he was mentally incompetent to stand trial and was not 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.
Family members of the victims protested and prosecutors fought to keep Johnson under treatment in the Utah State Hospital.
"It comes down to the laws," Christy Danner, a mother of one of Johnson's alleged victims, said last spring. "We didn't realize they were broke. We do now. We need to fix them."
Daw believes his bill makes a lot of sense, allocating $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 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."