BOSTON — The decision that could lead to the release of convicted child rapist Wayne Chapman after more than four decades in prison was made by two psychologists who say the geriatric jailbird is too sick and frail to re-offend.

That hasn't sat well with Gov. Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey and other top state leaders who in the past week have pointed to what they view as flaws in the process of evaluating the threat of sexual predators who have been locked up indefinitely under the state's civil commitment law.

A 2009 Supreme Judicial Court ruling bars the state from keeping sex offenders in prison if at least two "qualified examiners" determine they’re no longer a threat.

The ruling has allowed at least 90 sex offenders to be released from a treatment center at the Bridgewater Correctional Complex, according to a recent Eagle-Tribune review of state data. In most cases, if not all, the state Department of Corrections disagreed with one or more of the examiners’ conclusions.

Baker has filed legislation that would, among other provisions, require a court hearing before a sex offender held under civil commitment can be released.

But those who conduct the sexual dangerousness evaluations for the state defend the process saying, while it isn't perfect, it's working.

"We experts didn't create this law, but we are trying to apply sound scientific principles to address whether or not a sexual offender whose criminal sentence has ended is dangerous enough to re-offend," said Dr. Joseph Plaud, a clinical psychologist who has examined "hundreds" of sex offenders — including Chapman.

Plaud, who has been enlisted by Chapman's lawyer Eric Tennen to help make the case for his release, says evaluating whether a sex offender is likely to commit new crimes is "complex, painstaking work."

Past behavior isn't always an indicator of whether someone is likely to re-offend, he said.

"If there was a formula that worked, we'd be using it. But we just don't have that,” said Plaud, who at one point evaluated Lucas Ortiz, a South Shore child rapist in prison since 1995, concluding he could not find any sexual or mental disorders. His opinion stood in stark contrast to the opinions of two state-hired examiners who diagnosed Ortiz with pedophilia.

He cites studies showing that sex offenders "have one of the lowest rates of recidivism" — especially when it comes to those over 60 years old.

"These men are grateful for their chance to redeem themselves and be productive citizens, they are remorseful for their past offenses, and working hard to keep improving themselves," Plaud said.

Chapman, 70, is seeking release from MCI Shirley after serving more than 40 years for raping two boys in the 1970s. He has admitted to raping as many as 100 boys in eight states and Canada, and has been a suspect in the August 1976 disappearance of Angelo "Andy" Puglisi Jr. of Lawrence. The boy was 10 at the time and was never found.

Chapman was sentenced to 30 years in prison but was later held under the state's civil commitment law, which allows sex offenders to be jailed indefinitely if they are deemed a danger to the community.

A lawyer representing Chapman's victims is asking the state's highest court to block his release, arguing that he is still a danger.

Tennen argues that Chapman suffers from numerous ailments and is no longer a risk.

If released, Chapman would need to go to a hospital or assisted living facility where wouldn't be around children, he said.

At a press briefing on Monday, Tennen lashed out at news coverage surrounding Chapman’s possible release, saying "misinformation" has created hysteria.

Plaud said the examiners who cleared Chapman for release -- Drs. Gregg Belle and Katrin Rouse Weir -- have received death threats.

“They do not deserve this treatment," he said. "Both qualified examiners in this case were faithfully following the law."

The state contracts with a private company to conduct yearly evaluations on about 250 "sexually dangerous persons" held under civil commitments.

Virginia-based Forensic Health Services and MHM Correctional Services Inc., which appear to be the same company, have been paid more than $7.8 million to conduct assessments at the Bridgewater center since 2011 under a multiyear contract with the Department of Corrections, according to a review of state data.

Examiners must be board certified psychiatrists or psychologists, and they must have at least two years’ experience diagnosing or treating "aggressive" sex offenders.

But Boston attorney Wendy Murphy, who represents several of Chapman victims, said the state's reliance on a for-profit company to evaluate dangerous sex offenders raises questions about a lack of oversight. She said the process of how examiners determine if a sex offender is a threat lacks transparency.

"These examiners are supposed to be appointed by the court," she said. "But instead a private company is appointing these people, with no oversight."

As part of her legal challenge to keep Chapman behind bars, Murphy has asked the Supreme Judicial Court to clarify whether the process violates state law.

Neither Forensic Health Services or MHM Correctional Services responded to a request for comment for this story.

Baker's plan would create a "sexual dangerousness review board" to evaluate sex offenders before they are set to be released. The five-member board would be comprised of psychologists or psychiatrists and replace the existing Community Access Board that evaluates sexual predators.

"It is clear that we must reform the court process for reviewing the commitment of sexually dangerous persons so that there is a full hearing before a sexually dangerous person is released," Baker wrote in a letter accompanying the proposal, which is being reviewed by lawmakers.

"While these reforms will not impact Chapman’s case, they will help keep child predators in custody in the future," he added.

A sweeping criminal justice bill signed by Baker in April calls for the creation of a legislative commission to look at the state's use of qualified examiners.

"We need to know what the expectations are for the examiners, how are they supervised, and if they using best practices in risk assessment," said Dr. Laurie Guidry, a clinical/forensic psychologist who heads the Massachusetts Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. "The system could be improved."

Guidry said the state appears to be relying less on "designated forensic psychologists" -- who have more training -- to evaluate sex offenders.

Still, she acknowledges that the system of evaluating whether a sexual predator is likely to reoffend will never be perfect.

"Unfortunately, the reality is that there's no perfect way to predict risk," Guidry said. "Statistically, it's unavoidable that there will be errors."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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