No Place to Go, Forever, Texas Offender Says

     HOUSTON (CN) – A Pasadena, Texas, law that bans sex offenders from living “within 1,000 feet … of any neighborhood” is unconstitutional, a man who completed serving his sentence eight years ago claims in court.
     Israel Escobar sued the city of Pasadena on Wednesday in Federal Court.
     Pasadena, pop. 133,000, part of greater Houston, is a Hispanic-majority city known for its refineries and strawberry festival. It was named after the California city.
     Escobar spent six years in prison after he was convicted of three felonies: attempted sexual assault, sexual assault of a child and indecency with a child.
     Texas “civilly committed” him before he finished serving his sentence in October 2007. Texas requires sex offenders in the program to live in halfway houses that are supposed to help them make the transition from prison to becoming productive, job-holding citizens.
     “The civil commitment process is designed to provide a safety net for high-risk repeat sex offenders who have a legislatively created diagnosis of a brain amorality that could lead to future sex assaults,” according to a Texas Legislature memo.
     Escobar lives in the Southeast Texas Transitional Center, a Houston facility run by the Geo Group, a private prison company whose contract with the state ended on Aug. 31.
     Escobar says because he has kept his nose clean and is gainfully employed at a Houston deli, the Texas Civil Commitment Office authorized him to move to his parents’ house in Pasadena, where he lived before his incarceration.
     He tried to register his move with the Houston Police Department and got some bad news: “Plaintiff was informed that the defendant City of Pasadena had enacted an ordinance that all but prohibited him from residing at any location within the city limits of the City of Pasadena, with or without his family,” the complaint states.
     The law prevents Escobar from living within 1,000 feet of any neighborhood, subject to $500 fines for each day a violation occurs.
     Now Escobar faces the prospect of moving to Littlefield, an eight-hour drive from Pasadena, to a private facility where Texas plans to move all sex offenders in the commitment program.
     He wants Pasadena’s law declared unconstitutional, citing due process and equal protection violations.
     He is represented by Scott Pawgan of Conroe.
     Pasadena’s city attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
     On paper, Texas sex offenders who follow the rules can be released from civil commitment, though not one person has been discharged since the program started in 1999, the Houston Chronicle reported in June.
     Almost half the enrollees have been sent back to prison – some for life – often for violating minor rules, such as being minutes late to treatment meetings or not charging their ankle monitors, according to the Chronicle.
     That’s due in part to the hard stance taken by state judge Michael Seiler, who presides over the court that handles the state’s sex offender civil commitment trials, and has never deemed an offender worthy of release from the program.
     A Texas judicial ethics commission censured Seiler in May for calling sex offenders who appear in his court “psychopaths.” The ethics watchdog also reprimanded Seiler for his habit of arguing in court with defense attorneys, who moved to recuse him 16 times in the past two years.
     Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill to overhaul the civil commitment program within hours after a Minnesota federal judge found that state’s similar program to be unconstitutional in June. U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank found it troubling that sex offenders were indefinitely committed under the Minnesota regime.
     “The stark reality is that there is something very wrong with this state’s method of dealing with sex offenders in a program that has never fully discharged anyone,” the June 17 decision states.

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