New York Times Editorial Board Takes Stand Against Civil Commitment for Sex Offenders

nytimes_civilcommitmentAn August 15, 2015 editorial in The New York Times, entitled “Sex Offenders Locked Up on a Hunch,” in support of the recent ruling in Minnesota, declares that the “indefinite detention of sex offenders reflects the politics of fear and overreaction that drive so much of criminal justice policy.”

For the past two decades these politics about sex offenses have unfavorably tipped the balance between civil rights and public safety. Draconian policies were swiftly enacted in an attempt to protect the public, but they created far more lasting damage. One of the more damaging policies, civil commitment, is getting a lot of attention due its cost and unconstitutional standards.

The authors observe that it makes little sense to civilly commit some sex offenders while releasing others with little to no re-entry assistance, especially in light of cost. In Minnesota alone, it’s “an annual cost of more than $120,000 per person — triple the cost of prison.” Clearly, civil commitment laws are expending countless dollars by pretending crime is a mental illness. As the Times states, “local prosecutors — not clinicians or mental health professionals — choose whether to seek continued detention based on a screening test that claims to predict a person’s likelihood of committing another sex offense, though there is no clear evidence such tests are accurate.”

The practice of civil commitment is in opposition to the goals of our criminal legal system. As the Times puts it,

The essence of the American criminal justice system is reactive, not predictive: You are punished for the crime you committed. You can’t be punished simply because you might commit one someday. You certainly can’t be held indefinitely to prevent that possibility.

Those offenders civilly committed are essentially, “leaving one prison for another.” It is refreshing to see a major news outlet stand in opposition to the unfair punishment of people deemed social pariahs; sex offenders are arguably the most despised of all criminal classes. Those deemed fit for civil commitment represent the “worst of the worst.” Advances in technology and around-the-clock media reports have bred endless amounts of information about sex offenders that confirm society’s claims. Blogs, news sites, Facebook, and other web-related sources are dedicated to ratting out sex offenders for their crime. Television dramas routinely strengthen sexual offending myths by their portrayals of sex offenders.

It leaves little wonder as to why our society is hell-bent on persecuting these offenders by any means necessary. The media shapes our society’s perceptions of sex offenders. Targeting, punishing and isolating sex offenders has become a national pastime as evidenced by the surge in legislation that increasingly oversteps the boundaries of constitutionality. It is about time society sees how misguided their opinions are, and the NYT’s article is a step towards progress.

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