Philip Fornaci is a civil rights lawyer based in Washington. Roger Lancaster is the author of “Sex Panic and the Punitive State.”
On Monday, the Circuit Court in liberal Arlington County will be the scene of a heavy-handed morality play, with prosecutors seeking lifelong incarceration for a young gay man who has already paid an extraordinary price for youthful, nonviolent sexual indiscretions.
Virginia, like 19 other states and the federal government, has a Sexually Violent Predators Act (SVPA). Under these laws, people who have completed their criminal sentences under any of a large number of sex-related offenses can be indefinitely detained in a high-security facility until the state determines that they no longer present a risk, typically never.
Civil libertarians have always objected to such practices. They smack of double jeopardy, of ex post facto punishment and of a glaring form of Catch-22: The defendant is deemed mentally fit to stand trial but is mentally unfit for release. The Supreme Court has swatted aside such objections, ruling that civil commitment is not punitive as long as the state claims that the purpose of detention is psychiatric treatment.
SVPA laws and practices refer to “mental abnormalities,” which sounds scientific. But the American Psychiatric Association has opposed such laws, citing their abuse of civil liberties and the use of unscientific “disorders” as the basis for punishment. In practice, designation as a sexually violent predator (SVP) is not based on substantial scientific research, and the therapy received by detainees in “treatment facilities” is based more on passing fads than on careful scholarship.
Nationwide, some 6,400 people are being held in civil commitment.
Galen Baughman could be one of them. At age 20, Galen pleaded guilty to two charges of illegal sexual misconduct: The first “offense” occurred 10 days after his 14th birthday (he was charged as an adult six years later) and the second when he was 19. Neither charge involved violence or deception; neither “victim” participated in his prosecution. As a consequence of an unwise plea agreement, he served six and a half years in prison, much of the time in solitary confinement.