If someone finishes a prison sentence for a violent sexual crime, but might still be dangerous, should he be released? How do you know if he’s dangerous? And when does it violate his rights to hold him?
On Monday, the Supreme Court is considering whether to hear a case that stems from these questions, a challenge to a Minnesota “civil commitment” program that holds people convicted of sexual crimes long after their sentences, ostensibly for treatment. Roughly 20 programs have arisen around the country since 1990, and at first they appeared similar to the hospitals for the mentally disabled on which they were modeled. When the Minnesota program was created in 1994, patients could bring their own computer or television or game console or aquarium, they could leave with a staff escort, visiting hours lasted eight hours a day, and if their families brought groceries, they could cook in the facility, according to the original lawsuit. In theory, once you completed treatment, you would be released.
But the laws governing the program were amended, and by 2012 the two Minnesota facilities, among others around the country, looked suspiciously like prisons. Surrounded by double-razor wire and bunked in two-man cells, more than 700 “patients,” as they were still called, now wore handcuffs and leg irons when transported. Visits were limited, personal computers and televisions were no longer allowed in, and strip searches became common.