Civil commitment reexamined: justice for sex offenders?

Some state courts are reviewing civil commitment policies that have allowed for involuntary detainment of sex offenders deemed dangerous beyond the terms of their criminal prison sentence. 

Martiga Lohn/AP/File
This April 19, 2010 file photo shows the Moose Lake, Minn., facility for sex offenders that was likened by offenders housed there in a lawsuit to a second prison sentence rather than the treatment program is was designed to be. Minnesota is awaiting word from a federal judge on how it must change its restrictive program for sex offenders, a long-awaited step for more than 700 offenders housed in Minnesota's two facilities.

For decades, 20 states across the country have upheld policies of civil commitment that allow for sexual predators or those persons categorized as “sexually dangerous” to be involuntarily admitted and held indefinitely in treatment facilities, even after the offenders have completed their prison sentences. Several states are now revisiting this policy, with some declaring it unconstitutional.

While proponents deem civil commitment a necessary safeguard, opponents argue the criteria for considering someone dangerous is subjective, based on legally defined terms rather than medical science.

Civil commitment “can provide opportunities for individuals to receive treatment interventions that may reduce their potential to recidivate upon release to the community, particularly offenders for whom specialized treatment was not available in the prison setting,” explains the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA).

But others say civil commitment is a violation of the US Constitution's Fifth Amendment double jeopardy clause that says no one may be subject to multiple punishments for the same offense. Furthermore, in order to subject an offender to involuntary treatment, the state does not need to prove mental illness, but simply provide evidence of the individual’s “inability to control him/herself from engaging in similar illegal behavior in the future,” according to the website

Federal law has, in the past, sided in favor of civil commitment. In 2006, Congress passed the Adam Walsh Act which included the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), establishing a basis for sex offender registry, categorizing offenders based on severity of the crime committed, and creating a nationwide sex offender database.

The US Supreme Court has also upheld the legality of civil commitment, most recently in 2010 when the court ruled in United States vs. Comstock that legal code 4248 outlining civil commitment of a sexually dangerous person was constitutional under the umbrella of the “necessary and proper” clause (Article 1, Section 8).

But civil commitment is defined ultimately by the states, and some of the 20 are now revisiting the provision.

In Minnesota on Thursday, a federal judge in the St. Paul district court ordered treatment assessments on the 700 detained “to seek releases or ease restrictions in appropriate cases, and to begin conducting annual assessments to determine whether everyone here still meets the legal requirements for civil commitment,” The New York Times reported.  

Missouri has also reexamined its policy. Last month, a district court judge ruled Missouri’s application of civil commitment law a violation of the “due process” clause.

“The Constitution does not allow (Missouri officials) to impose lifetime detention on individuals who have completed their prison sentences and who no longer pose a danger to the public, no matter how heinous their past conduct,” the judge said in her statement. According to the ruling, Missouri had failed to both “properly implement any program to ensure the least restrictive environment” and implement release procedures “in the manner required by the law.”

Texas is another state that reviewed their policy after the Houston Chronicle found last month that none of the detained offenders have been released, though the program began 15 years ago.

Washington State provides for annual review to “address whether the committed person continues to meet the definition of a sexually violent predator, and whether conditional release to a less restrictive alternative is in the best interest of the person and conditions can be imposed that would adequately protect the community.”

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