Prosecutors use the expert evaluations to argue that offenders should be confined indefinitely, in most cases to Coalinga State Hospital, for treatment as sexually violent predators. An inmate can be so designated if a jury affirms such a diagnosis by two psychologists or psychiatrists.
But some defense attorneys have aggressively questioned state evaluators, suggesting that their judgments were swayed by high fees. New research also shows far lower rates of recidivism by sex offenders than previously thought, an issue often raised to juries.
System ill prepared
In 2005, John Couey, a sex offender who had completed parole, raped and murdered 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, the law's namesake. He buried the girl alive in a shallow grave.
Jessica's Law was intended to keep such criminals from reoffending. But the mental health system was ill-prepared for soaring workloads.
Evaluations often require review of thousands of pages of medical, legal and prison files and interviews with inmates, Mayberg said. Reports are usually 20 to 30 pages and require an average of 20 hours to finish, he said.
Dr. Michael First, editor of the American Psychiatric Assn. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the standard reference for mental disorders, said most reports require at least 30 hours.
"It's often hard to get into a person's head," he said. "I don't think there is any way to do shortcuts and do a decent report. You have people's lives and liberty at stake."
Yet on a single day, Nov. 13, 2007, No. 2-earner Starr billed for five evaluations.On April 23, 2007, she billed more than 17 hours for a range of court-related work and still found time to complete an evaluation, according to her invoices, which were reviewed by The Times.
Starr declined to comment. Owen, the top earner, did not return calls for comment.
Dr. Mohan Nair, a psychiatrist with offices in Beverly Hills and Los Alamitos, earned nearly $1 million last year under the state program. He also saw private patients, provided forensic testimony and evaluation for other government agencies, directed a diagnostic lab and supervised residents at two medical centers.
Nair completed up to 20 sex-offender evaluations a month in 2007. Including time billed for legal matters, they comprised just 20% to 30% of his professional practice, he said.
Even at 100 hours per week, he would have had no more than six hours to complete each of five evaluations.
Jessica's Law made fast work possible, Nair said, by requiring evaluations of offenders with "thin files."
"The less data you have, the less criminal history, history of offenses," he said, "it's going to take less time."
Mayberg, director of the Department of Mental Health, said some high earners increased their volume by interviewing up to three inmates in a single prison visit and hiring assistants to organize documents and fill in boilerplate portions of reports.
The vast cost of the evaluations and the system's reliance on contractors have prompted concerns by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents state psychologists.
"There is going to have to be some kind of adjustment in what the contractors are making if [the state] is going to recruit" staff psychologists, udi Herman, who chairs the union's psychologist committee, said in an interview.
The State Personnel Board recently took up the issue, ruling that the use of contractors violated state law by failing to make an adequate effort to fill evaluator jobs with regular employees. The board ordered mental health officials to replace the contractors with civil servants. Despite an increase in pay to up to $110,000 annually, Mayberg said, just four jobs out of 80 have been filled.
Since then, the department and the union helped to craft a bill to permit the use of contract evaluators until January 2011.
The legislation, sponsored by Jessica's Law co-author Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster), would require that state officials report to the Legislature twice a year on hiring efforts and on the costs and effects of the program.
The data could help determine whether the evaluation process is operating as voters intended. One high-earning evaluator is among those voicing doubts.
Nair said that since Jessica's Law, the proportion of inmates he recommends for commitment has plummeted. That shift convinced him that the law's criteria are overly broad. Asked whether Jessica's Law is a good law, Nair paused.
"I have to wonder," he said. "There may be a better allocation of resources."