Sex offenders, especially child predators, are some of the most reviled people on Earth.
And because of the nature of their crimes, the public generally wants them put away for a long, long time.
The question is: What’s long enough?
Texas, along with 19 other states and the District of Columbia, has decided that in many cases the time assessed by juries is insufficient. It has come up with a way to continue confining certain violent sex offenders even after they have completed their court-imposed sentences.
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No matter what you may think about sex offenders, you have to see that keeping them under state supervision — in halfway houses and other “treatment” facilities — is a not-so-subtle way of extending their prison terms and is unjust.
Since 1999, the state has allowed for the “civil commitment” of those being released from prison after determining (through legal proceedings) that the individuals have a behavior abnormality that makes them likely to commit violent sexual crimes in the future.
Ostensibly, the re-commitment upon release from prison is for the purpose of the offender receiving treatment for the mental disorder, presumably with the idea that once that treatment is completed the person will be allowed to return to society.
But not one of the 360 men placed in civil commitment over the last 15 years has ever been released, the Houston Chronicle reported.
In addition to the legal and ethical issues surrounding this process, the state now faces another conundrum. The Chronicle noted that the civil commitment program has run out of places to house these individuals, and dozens of offenders are set to be released in the coming months.
Four halfway houses serving more than 100 men have told the state they want the sex abuse residents removed by the end of August.
The Texas program is the only one in the country that was designed as an “outpatient” one, which some consider a farce because the released inmates are systematically confined rather than being allowed to return to their homes.
There has been much debate over the years as to whether such action by the state constitutes double jeopardy and, in fact, whether the treatment is simply a guise to keep the convicted sex offender off the street.
The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of civil commitments, so it is not likely that the Texas program is going away anytime soon.
But this is an issue that legislators need to study again — carefully, with justice in mind rather than constant punishment.
At the least, there ought to be changes in the program.
For example, many of the offenders who were civilly committed have been sent back to prison not because they committed another crime but for minor violations of the program, such as missing therapy sessions, being a few minutes late back to the halfway house and yelling.
Some have argued that if these violent offenders suffer a mental disorder, they should be provided the “treatment” while in prison rather than after they are released.
The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, which takes no position favoring or opposing civil commitments, endorses a set of recommendations for states to follow if they proceed with such programs, including that treatment “be consistent with current research and professional standards and guidelines.”
The ATSA also suggests annual reassessment of individuals to “evaluate progress toward treatment goals.” Texas rules call for a biennial evaluation.
Nobody likes the idea of a violent sex offender back on the streets. But no one should approve of the state creating tools to keep people confined once they’ve served their sentences.
If lawmakers want to change the criminal laws to give jurors more latitude in assessing longer sentences, fine.
But once the jury has reached a verdict, then the state ought to abide by the terms of the punishment.