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May 5, 2018

Scrutinizing sex offender civil commitment schemes

Investigative reporter Barbara Koeppel has this extensive article in The Washington Spectator under the full headline "Sex Crimes and Criminal Justice: Formerly incarcerated sex offenders say civil commitment programs deny proper rehabilitation."  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts from the start and end of the article:

Since the 1990s, 20 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws that direct the attorneys general in these jurisdictions to appoint professionals to evaluate whether sex offenders who have served their time have a mental abnormality or illness that would make them likely to re-offend.  If the decision is yes, the men are re-incarcerated—not for past crimes but for ones they might yet commit — in prisonlike facilities with barbed wire, cells, guards, and watch towers. While institutionalized, they receive therapy that, theoretically, will help them control their sexual impulses.

The practice is known as civil commitment.... Supporters of the process argue it protects the public.  Critics, however, such as Dr. Richard Wollert, a psychologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, disagree. He says the facts simply don’t support it: “I’ve never seen data that show the 20 states with civil commitment laws have lower rates of sex offenses or re-offenses than the 30 states that don’t.”  Similarly, Dr. Fred Berlin, a psychologist who runs sex offender outpatient programs at Johns Hopkins Hospital, says, “They’re really a ruse to not put the men back in society.” The sex offenses range from obscene phone calls, lewd behavior in public, and sex with underage partners, all the way up to rape and murder.

Organizations and professionals familiar with the abuses of civil commitment are its harshest critics.  The American Psychiatric Association told its members to “vigorously oppose” it. Two judges, from Minnesota and Missouri, found the laws “punitive and unconstitutional.”  Tapatha Strickler, a clinical psychologist who worked at the civil commitment facility in Larned, Kansas, calls it “an abomination.”  But the practice persists at huge cost to individuals and taxpayers....

The men I interviewed frankly admitted to their offenses, but they asked to be treated as others who commit crimes and not be re-incarcerated after they serve their prison sentences.  Also, since most state and federal prisons run mental health therapy programs, the men said they’d already participated in them throughout their original sentences — which could be 20 or 25 years — yet were made to start from scratch in the civil commitment facilities.

Today, about 5,400 men are held in civil commitment. [Lawyer Donald] Anderson told me, “It’s hard to wrap my head around it.  I sympathize greatly with the men’s victims and their families because I have two daughters and I understand people’s fears.  But I’ve dealt with these guys for years and I’m very fond of some of them.  Their look of being utterly beaten, knowing they’ll be here until they die, is very sad.  The program is inhumane.”

May 5, 2018 at 01:31 PM | Permalink


I live in Iowa and if that really meant "Idiots out wandering about" it would be a good thing. Unfortunately the idiots are in the state legislature passing sex offender laws.

Posted by: John Neff | May 5, 2018 3:29:25 PM

The problem here is the difference between the theoretical and the actual practice. It seems abundantly clear that people can be committed indefinitely if they have an illness that makes them a danger. But then there's the quid pro quo. There has to be treatment, judicial review, and other rights.

For example, these guys would have an absolute right to insult the guards with absolutely no repercussions. So what happens when there are repercussions?

The courts will never ensure that the deal is kept.

Posted by: federalist | May 5, 2018 3:45:31 PM


There really is no problem. What is happening involves a money trail. Sex Offenders are the new cattle in the system. You get a lot of money and can create a lot of jobs by controlling a lot people on a database. Money. That's all it's about. Not safety. Money.

Posted by: Book38 | May 5, 2018 9:23:37 PM

Civil Commitment of Sex Offenders is driven exclusively by the fear & loathing of the society over sex and, consequently, sex offenders. There is no medical or psychiatric benefit to locking up SOs and throwing away the key. No "healing" is done. It is an old form of torture and barbarity brought into modern times by the US of A. Just another form of the dungeons that exist related to this issue (the other is the sentences being handed down--445 years, 56 years to life, etc., etc. for sex offenses).

What kind of society does this? A barbaric one. Go back 40 years. Multiple-life sentences, civil commitments, they didn't exist. What has changed in 40 years? Have the nature of the offenses changed? No. Instead of a humane, intelligent, and effective approach that might actually help mitigate the problem of sex offenses in society, the opposite has been done. The society has gone feral. That's what has changed.

What's more, these changes are the crack in the Constitution which will destroy the entire society. Sex offenders are the canary in the coal mine of the American Republic. The majority has subverted the rights of the individual, because sex offender.

And we will reap the whirlwind all of us because of it. Today they came for the sex offenders. Tomorrow they will come for you.

Posted by: restless94110 | May 5, 2018 9:49:24 PM


"Unfortunately the idiots are in the state legislature passing sex offender laws."

No, there is more idiocy (and cowardice) to go around! Look at that idiot Smith from New Jersey who championed International Megan's Law, especially when that which is lawful in other countries (different ages of majority) would get you a life sentence in good old Amerika. There is absolutely no quid pro quo in this law, just another chance to beat on SOs.

That and the cowardice, self-deception and typical stereotyping ritualistically performed by our own 9 royal baboons in black pajamas aka., the Supreme Court. The only thing they are Supreme about is their self-deception and exceptionally fraudulent mental gymnastics to ignore the obvious. They deserve absolutely zero respect for their enormous cowardice.

Posted by: albeed | May 5, 2018 10:34:24 PM

One correction: not all the civilly committed former sex predators are male, although the overwhelming majority are.

One question I have is when you keep a person beyond his or her original sentence, then what incentive do they have not to become unruly or rebellious against the staff and corrections officers there? What would these civilly committed detainees have to lose by taking hostages the way Attica inmates did back in 1971 or even in killing a guard or staff member as a way of seeking revenge against the civil commitment law. Since civil commitment is like a de facto life sentence in a regular maximum security prison, what is the worse that could happen to a civilly committed detainee who murders guards and staff at the institution, another life sentence on top of their existing civil commitment? Not much of a deterrent to me. The only thing that surprises me is that these civil commitment centers have not yet erupted into hotbeds of Attica-like inmate unrest.

Posted by: william r. delzell | May 5, 2018 11:41:11 PM

If civil commitment does cause a "nothing to lose" attitude among the detainees there, one would think that guards and staff members at these institutions would be the first to criticize the practice of civil commitment if it creates a hostile environment for guards and staff. Why don't these personnel go on strike the way guards and staff at various regular prisons have done when they wish to protest dangerous working conditions to the legislature? Back in the 1980's and 1990's, you had at least one incident in North Carolina where corrections officers went on strike to protest the killing of a guard and to shame the legislature into doing something about it?

If civilly committed inmates may seem resigned and passive today, that does not mean that a newer generation of civilly committed detainees will have the same submissiveness. Nobody thought that Attica or Lucasville prisons would erupt during the 1970's and 1990's when they finally did. The result: several guards and inmates needlessly lost their lives because the inmates so no hope to their situation. You deprive civilly committed men and women of all hope, how long before they decide to retaliate in a radical and militant manner? What about political activism like civil disobedience to civil commitment? What about desperate detainees deciding to take up arms against their civil commitment jailers?

Posted by: william r. delzell | May 6, 2018 12:00:05 AM

While the concept of civil commitment and re-incarceration are truly horrifying, I think this all begs the greater question as to what the logical alternative would be. The justifications for punishment all must be taken into consideration in the development of such a policy--who are we serving? What are the most essential justifications at play here? And, are they actually being served by this method of "punishment"? Inherently, if these individuals have already served their time for crime(s) committed, how do we (as a society) begin to justify this type of detainment as anything but additional punishment? Future, potential recidivism is not enough of a legitimate motivation to remove personal autonomy; however, the statistics demonstrate there is an overwhelming correlation between these types of offenses and the likelihood of the offender to reoffend. It appears that incapacitation is the greatest motive for such commitment, because how much education and rehabilitation can be successful when there is no end in sight to being treated like a criminal?

I am curious to know the progression of this form of commitment and how we reached this point--the involuntary nature of this psychiatric treatment may, but does not necessarily require such a close resemblance to incarceration. When you treat individuals like criminals, how long until they prove you right? It's time we call for a drastic reform of such a practice.

Posted by: Caroline R | May 6, 2018 10:12:30 AM

It is far better to be punished than it is to be treated.

Posted by: Guy Hamilton-Smith | May 6, 2018 10:22:47 AM

And would there ever be an emphasis on EFFECTIVE treatments if all the players in this scheme know that the offenders are locked away indefinitely.

Posted by: tommyc | May 6, 2018 10:29:51 AM

"make them likely to re-offend"

Sexual offenses come in various forms and do not only involve actual physical abuse of third parties. Exposure, calls, various types of harassment etc. would be included here, perhaps, in the "likely to re-offend" category. This is an open-ended confinement power and reference to "offense" would make it particularly criminal (even moving past those who see the line between "civil" and "criminal" as thin).

It is a general concern of many on this blog regarding the treatment of sexual offenders (or alleged) but confinement is a major line that should be treated with special concern. The person released, e.g., can be tracked in various ways that are by themselves major restraints on liberty. But, they still are in a basic way free of confinement. Especially with a low test such as "likely" (whatever that means), the additional step toward confinement should require some sort of actual act.

Posted by: Joe | May 6, 2018 12:40:25 PM

Caroline R:

"however, the statistics demonstrate there is an overwhelming correlation between these types of offenses and the likelihood of the offender to reoffend."

The above statement is absolutely fallacious, ignorant, typical and BS. Thank you for demonstrating your lack of critical thinking.

Those CURRENTLY identified as the general population of sex offenders have a typical 3 year recidivism rate of 3-5%, the 2nd lowest of any major crime category except murder (2002 DOJ Recidivism Study of over 9,000 released prisoners). The rate does not increase after 3 years with more time. Now we can assume that the subset of SOs identified in civil commitment may have a higher recidivism rate, but there is no statistical basis to evaluate this possibility. The only basis upon which current assessments are made is political and not based on any evidence or science. The law does NOT differentiate the serious potential recidivism of a small subset of the population. What you have is a serious inversion of the Blackstone Principle that it is better to incarcerate 10 non-dangerous persons than let one potential recidivist go free.

Posted by: albeed | May 6, 2018 3:02:40 PM

I am a parent to a sex offender

I feel that the Civil Commitment law needs to be changed, it is totally unfair. Why is it that Sex Offenders, maybe Civilly Committed after being sentenced, when Murders, DWI, Terrorist, ETC, are set free after sentence. Lets look at it at a different angle., Mothers who abuse their child, go free after sentence, and can marry someone with children. But a sex offender who has children or plans on marrying someone with children can not be around children. Also, is it a double standard for woman who are convicted of a sex offense? I have never heard of a Civil Commitment Center for woman. Also, once a sex offender is set free he is placed on Megan Law and Parole for life, why isn't the murder, terrorist and mother who is a child abuser place on Parole for life too?

Posted by: Jim G. | May 6, 2018 4:04:30 PM


Thanks to a link from How Appealing there is this wonderful sex offender sentencing story from Iowa. A man got ten years for a sex offense under the guise of a ...wait for it...burglary conviction. One can't help but for that this end run around the civil commitment laws and lifetime registries played a significant role in the outcome. If we haven't entered the land of the surreal before, we just did.

Posted by: Oi Vey | May 6, 2018 7:57:06 PM

While the article notes to the initial trial court decisions out of Minnesota and Missouri. The Eighth Circuit reversed the Minnesota decision. It's my understanding that after the 8th Circuit decision on the Minnesota case, the trial judge pulled her interlocutory decision in the Missouri case. (The judge had found that the program was defective but had not yet issued a decision on the remedy for the flaws that she noted). Not noting that those initial decisions were reversed is somewhat misleading.

Posted by: tmm | May 7, 2018 2:11:49 PM

The most vocal opponents of civil commitment should be the custodial and corrections staff assigned to these post-imprisonment detainees. When you keep a person beyond his or her original punishment, that detainee no longer has any incentive to behave toward the staff and guards. Indeed, guards and civil commitment staff will most likely be the target of the detainees, at least if any particular staff or guard has done any of the detainees wrong. The supporters of civil commitment are putting our corrections and law enforcement staff to needless risk by passing and retaining such laws. Better yet, we should have the leglislators and politicians police these detainees and deal with any rage they may focus against their jailers.

Posted by: william r. delzell | May 7, 2018 2:37:03 PM

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