“Civil commitment” is a deceptively benign name for the practice of involuntary psychiatric hospitalization of the mentally ill. The practice can also be used to detain criminals who are deemed to be “sexually psychopathic” and too dangerous to be released back into society. Instead, they are held in an isolated state-run facility after serving their prison sentence for the purpose of rehabilitation. In theory, this treatment intends to reduce the risk of further dangerous sexual behavior. In practice, however, civil commitment violates the rights of inmates by detaining and punishing them beyond the scope of the prison sentence they received in court.
Historically, civil commitment was based on a perceived need for treatment of severe mental illness. However, the criteria for civil commitment have expanded to include the perception of “dangerousness.” A person can be considered “dangerous” if he is deemed to have the intent to harm himself or others, which also includes those who are deemed “sexually psychopathic.” This label can be given to convicted sex criminals and has prevented many inmates from being released back into society after they have served their prison sentences. Civil commitment was initially provided and performed in a treatment facility separate from the prison in which the inmate served his sentence; inmates are then transferred into outpatient therapy once their commitment is finished. These programs have become deeply flawed as they lack a timeframe for release and do not appropriately rehabilitate inmates.
Near the end of his prison sentence, a hearing is held before a judge to determine if the inmate will continue to be a danger to society after his release. Those inmates who are still considered dangerous or sexually psychopathic are denied the ability to have individualized treatment for their conditions after their release; instead, they are forced into civil commitment without a proper trial. To be clear, these detainment centers do not operate completely outside the law. A judge presides over an End of Sentence Review Committee that makes the decisions on whether or not a prisoner should be committed at the end of his sentence; there are also review boards that determine when a person is ready to be released. However, these hearings occur long after the prisoner has been sentenced by a jury of peers and has served his prison sentence, which can be twenty years or more.
Civil commitment decisions allow a judge to ignore the sentencing from a jury of peers and detain a person well beyond what our justice system determined to be an appropriate punishment for the crime. It allows for the extended imprisonment of criminals, most of whom are sex offenders, even after they have served their sentence. In an article titled, “A New Look at Sex Offenders And Lockups That Never End,” the New York Times investigates the civil commitment practices across the country that appear to violate due process. In Minnesota, for example, over 700 sex offenders have been committed after their prison sentence in the past two decades, and the state has yet to release any of them.
Proponents of this system cite public safety when advocating for civil commitment for sex offenders. These offenders, they argue, are too “dangerous” to be released back into society. The practice of civil commitment lies outside the bounds of the law, because it keeps a prisoner in the criminal justice system even after he has served the time that was initially deemed sufficient for the crime committed. If a person is sentenced for a crime, he should be released at the end of that sentence, not resentenced by a review board at the completion of his time served. If the nature of a criminal’s act is too vile, if the criminal is deemed too dangerous to ever be released back into society, then he should be sentenced as such at the initial trial, not after he has served his sentence.
This practice seriously overlooks the intended purpose of a prison sentence: retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, and most importantly for this issue, rehabilitation. According to the American Correctional Association, rehabilitation refers to “activities designed to change criminals into law abiding citizens, and may include providing educational courses in prison, teaching job skills and offering counselling with a psychologist or social worker.” Rehabilitation programs have proved to be successful. A correctional facility in Washington boasts that fewer than 7 percent of the sex offenders completing their programs return to prison. If more prisons were doing their job to rehabilitate the prisoners while they are serving their sentence, there would be little need for civil commitment; instead, inmates are left without adequate treatment while serving their court-mandated sentence, and are more vulnerable to civil commitment at the completion of their time served.
The civil commitment practices of Minnesota discussed in the Times article are egregious, but they are not the only state that has implemented failed programs. Texas’s outpatient program, for example, has never graduated a patient. The outpatient program provides mandatory treatment for former inmates but does not detain them; they are monitored, but are not housed in a state facility. This differs from Minnesota’s practice where inmates are housed in a detainment facility for inpatient treatment, but the result, that inmates have not been fully released, is the same in both states. Additionally, a judge recently ruled that Missouri’s practices violate due process by imposing “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.”
Despite the practices in some states that regularly violate the rights of offenders, there is evidence that these programs can work when implemented appropriately; sex offenders have the lowest recidivism rates of any criminal category. The state-by-state standards differ in policy and purpose, and states like Wisconsin and New York regularly graduate and release offenders into outpatient and supervised release programs. One possible reason that New York’s program is more successful in graduating patients is because the guidelines clearly define a sixty-day program after which the patient can be re-evaluated.
Between mandatory minimums, racial biases, drug convictions, underfunded programs, and more, our criminal justice system needs significant work. In addition to problems within prison, it is necessary to seriously address the issues surrounding civil commitment, because this practice violates the rights of inmates. They do not receive proper care when they are imprisoned, nor do they receive adequate care upon release. There needs to be proper rehabilitation treatment available to inmates, as well as clearly delineated criteria for civil commitment, should the in-prison rehabilitation be insufficient. Additionally, it is imperative that an explicit timeframe be laid out so that indefinite commitment is abolished, and inmates can be released as rehabilitated, contributing members of society.
The image featured in this article was taken by Bobak Ha'Eri. The original image can be found here.