Civil commitment: Treatment or extended punishment?

By J.D. Tuccille . . . Sold as a means of giving potentially dangerous sex offenders treatment for their conditions while indefinitely confining them, civil commitment programs invite skepticism about their motivation and effectiveness. While courts have signed off on the practice, keeping people locked up after they’ve served their prison sentences raises sticky legal and ethical questions. Now a lawsuit and a recent hunger strike by Minnesota prisoners offers new opportunities to reconsider and reform the practice.

At the end of February, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit gave the green light to a lawsuit challenging Minnesota’s civil commitment program for sex offenders. Importantly, the court allowed the plaintiffs to argue that civil commitment as practiced in the state is punitive in nature—something that’s not permitted of a supposedly therapeutic program.

The current case reboots an earlier legal challenge making similar allegations. The first case resulted in a 2015 U.S. District Court ruling that “Minnesota’s civil commitment scheme is a punitive system that segregates and indefinitely detains a class of potentially dangerous individuals without the safeguards of the criminal justice system.” While that ruling was reversed on appeal, the new decision revives hope that such arguments will prevail, and that such programs will be found unconstitutional.

That’s possible because the over 730 Minnesota prisoners subject to commitment have already served prison sentences for their crimes. They continue to be held under a state law providing for the confinement of “a sexually dangerous person or a person with a sexual psychopathic personality … to a secure treatment facility unless the person establishes by clear and convincing evidence that a less restrictive treatment program is available.” They can be held until they convince authorities “that the committed person is capable of making an acceptable adjustment to open society, is no longer dangerous to the public, and is no longer in need of treatment and supervision.”

Civil commitment has its roots in 1990s concerns that some sexual offenders are especially dangerous and prone, because of mental illness, to reoffend if released. The practice spread to 20 states, the federal government, and the District of Columbia, involving, at this time, roughly 6,300 inmates. Despite the potential for sentences without end, the U.S. Supreme Court signed off on civil commitment in 1997 on the grounds that it is permissible to continue to confine a person with a “mental abnormality” or “personality disorder” and that it is “not punishment”.

So, the basis for civil commitment is treatment of people who are ill, not extra punishment of people who have already served their sentences. Except that treatment facilities are awfully punitive, as the judge behind the 2015 decision ruled. News stories in Minnesota and elsewhere refer to “prisonlike treatment centers” and “prison by any other name.” The conditions, rules, and guards are entirely recognizable to anybody familiar with the corrections system, though the terminology is a bit fuzzier.

Read the remainder of the piece here at Reason.

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    • #82627 Reply
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      LJ

      Among many problems with this system, the people who determine you are in need of indefinite treatment are always a part of the system who makes money from your indefinite stay. They would claim that they the only ones with the experience to make such decisions. In reality, no other psychological professional would participate in such “treatment” because it always based on pseudo-science.

      They are scared to death of actual professionals telling the world that these psychs are full of you know what. We keep finding out that these institutional psychs commit fraud to keep their little kingdom going (California, the UK).

      I’m positive there are dangerous people out there. However, regimes like this are likely to never discover who those people actually are. These “treatments” are more likely to trap those who aren’t devious enough to fool these low-paid state employees!

    • #82628 Reply
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      Derek

      If Civil commitment isn’t punitive then prison is not punitive! They are one in the same!! The only difference is you are forced to attend treatment programs that try to make you look bad and keep you committed! It’s worse than prison to be honest. To say it’s not punitive is laughable and any judge who says otherwise refuses to see the truth through their own biases.

    • #82629 Reply
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      Perry P.

      No matter how they label it. It’s still punishment. It always has been, and always will be. The real reason is simply this: MONEY! Everyone gets MONEY, for every Human Soul they keep locked up, and by the way, we all know it’s NEVER any real treatment that goes on. It’s corrupted actions by Guards and other Prison Staff against these Inmates. It’s every day too. Believe it or not, that’s EXACTLY what’s going on at this very moment…and of course everyone that COULD do something about it, turns a Blind Eye. As far as I’m concerned; The Supreme Court is Corrupt, because they want us to die! That’s why they rule like they do.
      Nuff Said!

    • #82640 Reply
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      Jim S

      To start with, putting my two cents worth is most likely a total waste of time, simply because anyone that can do something to stop this madness isn’t reading this & PS they don’t really care anyhow!! But having said that, a politician in Virginia ( I believe?) said civil commitment reminded him of the Tom Cruise movie, Minority Report where people were being arrested for something they might do in the future?? Let that soak in!!! 2nd, the International Human rights organization of the UN, listened to several professional people & people that had been in civil commitment plus a few spoke briefly about the registry & how it is in violation of human rights & violating US Constitution. No ruling has been decided, that I have seen, but hopefully there will be a ruling against these draconian laws against the United States & maybe just maybe someone will wake up & come to their sense’s???

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