The trend in the courts
In the last three months, two consecutive court decisions have deemed the civil commitment program to be unconstitutional. Which is insightful because 20 states and the federal government uphold some form of the civil commitment laws also called “SVP” laws. To put it simply, the laws permit authorities to confine indefinitely, sex offenders expertly assessed to have mental diagnosis that makes them more likely to engage in future sexual violence.
In retrospect, the laws have had several dates with controversies from day one. Almost everything about the laws, related processes, and subsequent programs spark debates. In fact, the US Supreme Court decision permitting civil commitment to exist narrowly passed by a lone vote. Now, the debates are increasingly tilting towards a consensus, at least in the courts, that civil commitment as currently practiced in many regions is unconstitutional and needs to be worked on to check widespread abuses.
What the stats say
The reality is that ‘indefinite’ is a very long time, and in one of the cases where the court had to censure civil commitment, the treatment program had ran for 15 years without fully discharging anybody treated in the program’s history. A treatment that requires a minimum of 15 years to complete deserves to be re-evaluated, especially when the state sanctions such treatment. In any case, a lawyer is needed.
However, that is not as thought provoking as the interesting research finding by Grant Duwe, which posited that of a sample of civilly committed offenders, only 28% would likely have re-offended again in their lifetimes. The research finding begs the question: Are the states committing many people (who really have no use of a civil commitment treatment program) to treatment programs that ominously have no end date?
The implications of civil commitment
To be fair, cases that often require civil commitment are difficult to treat. However, is difficulty the sole reason why a woman should be civilly committed from Bill Clinton’s first year in office, or why a man that is 65 years of age, should be shuffled among more than two dozen therapists within two decades of commitment?
The deafening silence of professionals is worrying
It is clear that various task force reports, and outside evaluations that influenced the court rulings seek to challenge the status quo. If that is the case, then where are the practitioners/professionals in all of this? Why the worrying silence? No doubt, some people at the front lines, outside of public view, think about how the programs can improve going forward. This is in spite of the fact that policy and supervisors often do not favor open discussion of these issues.
In any case, it is about time professionals openly acknowledge that the systems in which they operate are unconstitutional—as upheld by the courts—and do not adopt the tenets of human rights protections as practiced in much of the Western world. In fact, one of the highest courts in the UK (America’s closest Western ally) denied a U.S. extradition request. The refusal was on the basis that the Minnesota civil commitment program, which the man facing extradition would have been admitted into, violated European human rights law.
Going forward, professionals have to answer these questions sincerely. Does administering “treatment” that would likely never be completed, not count as a form of basic human right violation? Do the broad residency policies and restrictions that severely restrict the possible locations where the minute number of offenders who eventually pull free of the clutches of the system after decades of treatment can reside not question the constitutionality of the civil commitment programs? If the practices clearly do not offer long-term benefits to most people, why should professionals keep turning the wheel of the system? Legal action and articles in journals are fine, but the game-changer would be public dialog. And professionals are better placed to get the public dialog going. It is about time professionals agree not to violate the rights of others under the banner of reducing harm.