Hall of Justice in San Diego
The Hall of Justice in San Diego. Courtesy District Attorney’s office

A state senator, with the backing of San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan, announced Tuesday the re-introduction of legislation aimed at keeping court hearings for Sexually Violent Predators open to the public.

Senate Bill 248 would require that court proceedings remain public for the civil commitments of Sexually Violent Predators — or SVPs — offenders convicted of sexually violent offenses and diagnosed with a mental disorder that makes them likely to re-offend, according to Sen. Patricia Bates, R-Laguna Niguel.

SVPs who have been civilly committed to state hospitals to undergo treatment may petition for placement into the Conditional Release Program for outpatient treatment. If approved by a judge, they may be released to a residence under the supervision of Liberty Healthcare, which contracts with the state to administer supervision and treatment.

Hearings on the merits of those petitions and proposed placement locations have been held behind closed doors with increasing frequency, prosecutors say.

SB 248 would prohibit those proceedings from being closed to the public “unless compelling and extraordinary circumstances justify” closing the courtroom. It would also require a notice to all parties regarding the proposed closure, which would occur at least 10 calendar days prior to the hearing.

“This important legislation supports the principles of democracy and transparency in our justice system by making sure court hearings for sexually violent predators are open to the public,” Stephan said. “As District Attorney, I hear the pain from victims who’ve been terrorized by a sexual predator but are left in the dark and not able to learn pertinent information guaranteed to them by our open courts system.”

The bill is currently awaiting referral to a Senate policy committee, according to Bates’ office. A similar bill, SB 1023, was introduced last year, but had to be put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“District Attorney Stephan and I believe that court hearings for sexually violent predators should be open to the public whenever possible,” Bates said. “Victims, their families, and the public have the right to witness hearings regarding the potential release of a predator. I look forward to working with the district attorney and my legislative colleagues to update the law to improve transparency in our courts.”