Monday, May 24, 2010

Even Sex Offenders Have Rights in Need of Protection Even sex offenders have rights in need of protection.

At first glance, the Supreme Court ruling on Monday allowing dangerous sexual offenders in psychiatric units to be locked up after they've completed their prison sentences until they are considered safe seems logical. After all, if they are deemed a danger to society, they must be kept away from society. That's simple to understand. Many states use what is called civil commitment to hold dangerous sexual offenders after their prison terms have expired.

But considered further, the ruling is troubling as it dangerously blurs the line between the criminal justice system and the mental health system.

If a sex offender is in prison for a sex crime, he is being punished for his crime. If a sex offender is in a psychiatric unit following his prison sentence, then the implication is that he should have qualified for a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. A prisoner does not become mentally ill the moment he leaves prison. The mental state of the offender should be established at the onset. If it is determined that he is a threat to the public and will continue to pose a threat by virtue of his mental state, then civil commitment should be used.

The ruling underscores the vexing problem of how we as a society need to reevaluate the categorization and treatment of sex offenders. It is enduringly difficult finding the balance between the safety of society as a whole versus the rights of an individual, especially if that individual has paid his debt to society.

"The fact that the federal government has the authority to imprison a person for the purpose of punishing him for a federal crime — sex-related or otherwise — does not provide the government with the additional power to exercise indefinite civil control over that person," said Justice Clarence Thomas in the dissenting opinion.

While it is tempting to say to the federal government "go for it" when it comes to the open-ended confinement of sexual offenders by any means, we must be wary of a government overstepping its boundaries when it comes to removing the rights of select groups of citizens.

There is a recent — and glaring — history of a state using the mental health system to impose its will on the public. In the Soviet Union, psychiatric hospitals were de facto prisons used to punish political and religious dissenters. Let's keep our society safe, yes, but not at any cost.