Many people think of the American Criminal Justice system as an institution that punishes those who are guilty of committing a crime, but never punishing someone for a crime they may commit someday in the future. Unfortunately, for many who are convicted of sex crimes, this is what is happening. Throughout the nation, an estimated 5,000 people who are convicted of sex crimes and serve their sentences remain incarcerated by what is deceivingly called a civil commitment .
Civil commitment is the act of keeping someone locked up in a prison or institution for months, years, or possibly decades for the supposed purpose of preventing possible future offenses. Authorities have the ability to incarcerate those with mental illnesses or disorders who cannot function on their own, or pose a threat to themselves or others. Yet since the 1990s, this had been used to imprison sex offenders who don't necessarily pose a danger to themselves or others.
In 20 states and the District of Columbia as well as under federal law, allow those convicted of violent sex crimes can be held in custody indefinitely past the end of their criminal sentences. The Supreme Cour has sustained these laws on the basis that they are not intended to punish, but only to retain people until they are no longer a threat. Additionally, in California, these “sexual violent predator” laws have been upheld.
In June, a federal judge ruled that Minnesota's civil-commitment law for sex offenders violates the Constitution. Federal District Judge Donovan Frank said that the law imposes “a punitive system that segregates and indefinitely detains a class of potentially dangerous individuals without the safeguards of the criminal justice system.” For instance, prosecutors—not trained medical professionals, such as clinicians—choose whether to seek continued detention based on a screening test that is said to predict the likelihood of committing another sex offense, though there is no evidence the test proves this.
Based on these tests, more than 700 Minnesotans who have completed their prison sentences are locked up, at an annual cost of $120,000 per person—triple the cost of prison. This civil commitment rate is the highest in the country and some people have been held for more than 20 years. During this time, not one person has been unconditionally released from the program.
The public often believes that all sex offenders reoffend—a belief that led to these laws in the first place. Sexual re-offense rates are actually lower than those for other crimes. Also, while some states' laws make it easier for those detained to be released, 30 states have no civil commitment laws at all, and there is no evidence that our state's sexual-violence rate is positively affected by the implementation of such laws.
The politics of fear and overreaction drive so much of criminal justice policy, such as California's three-strikes law or harsh mandatory-minimum sentences nationwide. This was the case in Minnesota, where there has been a drastic increase in the number of people committed after a recently released sex offender killed a college student in 2003.
Instead of detaining sex offenders who have already completed their sentences, public safety would be better served if resources were directed toward community supervision and other services for those leaving prison. Misleading interpretations of the Constitution is not the answer.
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