Can there be life after civil commitment?

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By Sandy . . . Over forty years ago, Wayne Chapman was convicted of raping two boys. He claimed to have had as many as a hundred victims.

He was sentenced to thirty years in prison, and when that was completed, under Massachusetts’s civil commitment laws, was confined further in a non-criminal facility where he was to be treated and evaluated and from where he would be released when he was determined no longer to be a danger to society.

That determination has been made.

Chapman, now 70, suffers from multiple health issues. He is in a wheelchair. He is unable to care for himself at the most basic level, including not being able to dress himself.

Approximately three months ago, when it was clear that Massachusetts law dictated his release, authorities levied new sexual crimes against him. He had, they said, exposed himself to a nurse in the hospital unit. Prior to this, in all of the forty plus years that Mr. Chapman has been incarcerated and civilly committed, there is nothing to suggest that he had engaged in this type of behavior.

His imminent release is, of course, on hold until these new charges, to which he has pled not guilty, work their way through the system.

In the meantime, forces from the governor down are aligning themselves to stop his release no matter what. Wendy Murphy, an attorney for one of the victims, has tried vigorously to block it, sharing emotional victim reactions with the press and calling into question the laws that allow release if two independent, state-sanctioned psychologists or psychiatrists find him no longer dangerous.

Governor Baker has called for legislation that mandates life in prison with no parole in some cases  and that increases the difficulty for anyone ever to be released from civil commitment.

Fear-mongering, scare tactics designed to inflame the public, and the dissemination of misinformation have dominated the situation. The two doctors whose independent examinations found Chapman no longer a threat and eligible for release have both received death threats.

June 11, Eric Tennen, one of Mr. Chapman’s attorneys, and Dr. Joseph Plaud, who has examined hundreds of civilly committed sexual offenders, gave a press conference with the stated purpose of fighting the hysteria with facts and scientific evidence.

Some of their main points were:

  • The extremely low sexual reoffense rate of released offenders
  • The age and physical condition of Mr. Chapman
  • The placement of Mr. Chapman in a hospital or similar facility, which would preclude access to children
  • The overwhelming success rate of Massachusetts’ civil commitment release program

Mr. Tennen chided the press for being so quick to report over the years on the pending release of sexual offenders from prison or civil commitment but totally lacking in follow-up a year or five or ten years later showing that all of the earlier fears were for naught and there had been no reoffenses.

Paul Shannon, chairman of the NARSOL board of directors, and attorney Eric Tennen are among those attempting to stop the proposed legislation. Paul reports, “Seven of us met with the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who took our concerns seriously. Our experts helped clarify for him just how this complicated process around civil commitment really works. Several of us will be meeting on this matter with another key senator on the Judiciary Committee next week in hopes of laying the groundwork for opposition to this bill.”

Not all states allow for civil commitment of those convicted of sexual crimes (see “Locked up for what you might do”). Whatever the outcome of the proposed legislation, the ability of a state to confine an individual beyond the limits of a court-ordered sentence is a dangerous thing. Few will be found who are willing or able to move beyond the desire to forever confine those who have at some point been judged dangerous and arrive at the point of realization that, while today it is sexual offenders, tomorrow it could be anyone.

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