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Supreme Court to Review Law on Civil Commitment of the "Sexually Dangerous"

By Javier Lavagnino, Esq. on June 22, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Child molesters, rapists, sexual predators and the like are often, with good reason, considered to be amongst the worst of the worst of criminal offenders. Severe sentences are the norm for these types of offenses, but many people feel even lengthy jailtime is sometimes not enough. The Supreme Court today announced it will consider the constitutionality of a part of a federal law that allows for "sexually dangerous" inmates to be put away indefinitely via civil commitment, even after they've completed their sentences.

Criminal law reserves serious sentencing penalties for sex offenders, acknowledging both the harm done to victims by the crimes, plus the likelihood of re-offense. However, these jail terms, lengthy as they may sometimes be, do come to an end in many cases. As a result, some states and recently the federal government have enacted laws that permit the civil commitment of certain previously convicted individuals, usually sex offenders. Civil commitment allows for such individuals to be removed from society for extended periods of time, for purposes of both protecting society and rehabilitation.

The federal government's effort was via the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, which allows for the federal government to civilly commit any "sexually dangerous" person in custody of the Bureau of Prisons. The federal appeals court to consider the law ruled that:

"The Constitution does not empower the federal government to confine a person solely because of asserted 'sexual dangerousness' when the Government need not allege (let alone prove) that this 'dangerousness' violates any federal law."

Translating this, the appeals court didn't even get to the point of looking at the rights of the individuals being committed in the case. It said that states, and not the federal government, have the power to make laws on civil commitment (which they actually do, in many cases). If the Supreme Court ends up disagreeing with that issue, then the big question will be whether the federal law can withstand other Constitutional challenges, as it is currently written. Some argue that the entire issue of how to deal with offenders would be better addressed via adjusting their criminal sentences, as opposed to essentially transforming phsychiatrists into jailers. The links below have more resources on the federal law under review, plus some more information and commentary.

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