Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sex Offenders Rights Must Be Observed : Editorial | Rights of sex offenders must be observed.

Rights balancing is a tricky business, and sometimes it’s just easier to look the other way. That’s what happened when a Boston court sentenced Jeffrey Shields to civil detention last week as a sexually dangerous person. In this case, the court pulled a trick straight from “Minority Report” and locked up Shields, an ex-felon, to prevent him from committing future offenses.

For starters, the civil detention of past criminals comes eerily close to a double jeopardy violation because the state is inferring future crimes from past behavior. In essence, a person goes to jail for a crime, gets released and gets sent to a high-security civil detention center. The only reason it’s not legally double jeopardy is that it’s a civil rather than a criminal sanction, but that distinction is dubious at best. Whether they are in a prison or a detention center, the people in question are still behind bars.

In most cases, the state is merely using the guise of civil detention to unethically tack on years to a sentence beyond what the initial criminal court had determined fair. In particular, this toys with the idea that there is a just punishment for each crime. If, as a society, we feel that sex offenders are not serving enough time in prison, we should raise sentences, but instead we are looking for back doors.

The simple fact is that we do not lock sex offenders up for life, and there’s probably a good reason for that. As hard as it is to come to terms with when staring evil in the eyes, we are a society that fundamentally believes in the idea of just desert. We believe that prisoners pay their debt to society and then start again with a clean slate. That’s what helps us cope with crimes and believe that human beings, no matter what they’ve done in the past, are capable of redemption. It’s also why our prison system has so long incorporated the idea of rehabilitation.

Nevertheless, society has given up on sex offenders, deeming them incapable of recovery. While Shields was the first person sentenced to civil commitment under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, thousands have been put in civil detention facilities since the 1997 Supreme Court decision in Kansas v. Hendricks, which allows for the indefinite civil incarceration of sex offenders.

When the rights of past felons come in conflict with the safety of society, it makes sense to err on the side of protecting innocent people. But in doing so, we can’t escape from the uncomfortable reality that even sex offenders have rights.

Sex offenders are some of the most repugnant members of society, and we certainly need protection against them. We just can’t let that protection come at the cost of our ideals.

It’s time to move back toward the center.