Formerly incarcerated sex offenders say civil commitment programs deny proper rehabilitation
May 4, 2018
By Barbara Koeppel
Responding to several highly publicized sex crimes and public fears, legislatures across the country have adopted statutes that allow the continued imprisonment of sex offenders after they have completed their sentences. Veteran investigative reporter Barbara Koeppel has spent the past 12 months reporting on this third rail of the criminal justice system. Here are her findings.
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.
The crimes that inspired this legislation were indeed brutal: In Washington state, Earl Shriner, who was imprisoned for sex offenses against children, completed his sentence and later raped and mutilated a young boy. The state then passed the country’s first civil commitment law in 1990. Similarly, in New Jersey, Jesse Timmendequas, who was imprisoned for assaulting two young girls, was released and later raped and murdered a 7-year-old girl, Meghan Kanka. In 1996, New Jersey passed its own law, as did others around the same time.
The new laws sparked legal battles, and in 1997 the U.S. Supreme Court (in Kansas v. Hendricks) ruled that sex offenders who complete their prison terms can be locked away again. No new crime. No trial. No set time limits. Double jeopardy? The Court said no.
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.
Kansas Judge Frank J. Yeoman Jr. describes civil commitment as a life sentence. “Only in the rarest of instances does anyone, once committed, ever achieve release, except upon his demise.”
Data show Judge Yeoman is correct. In Minnesota, of the 720 men committed over 24 years, 62 died in custody and only one was fully released. In Kansas, of 263 men detained after completing their sentences, 36 died and only three were released. In New Jersey, of 755, 58 died and 235 were discharged. Of the 58 who died, one had a brain tumor that herniated and left him blind. Still, staff at the Special Treatment Unit at the facility in Avenel, New Jersey, decided he was too dangerous to let go. Ultimately, he was sent to a hospice. And New Jersey is not unique. In all the states, many men who are so old or disabled that they’re in wheelchairs and can’t feed or dress themselves are still locked up.