The Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday about the controversial practice of keeping sex offenders locked up after they have completed their criminal sentences — but from an unusual angle.That's because the court already ruled, in Hendricks v. Kansas (1997), that states could confine pedophiles and other sex offenders civilly (in mental facilities) after their criminal sentence (in prison) had expired. The question yesterday was whether the Congress had the authority to order this for all federal prisoners dubbed dangerous.
The question was not whether the continued civil commitment of prisoners for fear that they remain “sexually dangerous” violates due process principles. It was, rather, whether Congress had the constitutional power to authorize the practice at all for federal prisoners. State civil confinement laws are not at issue in the case.
As the story goes on to note, only Justice Scalia seemed sympathetic to the idea that the federal government is engaging in a ruse to keep persons who have completed their sentence locked up beyond their time (although, ironically, he did vote in the majority in the Hendricks case, thus indicating this is more a question of federalism). The rest of the court seemed to reject the arguments put forward by the prisoners.
G. Alan DuBois, a lawyer for the prisoners, disputed [the] characterization of the relationship between the criminal justice system and his clients’ cases.Yet the mad dash, in the name of public safety, to embrace these laws blurs the line. Or as Scalia himself put it:
“Civil commitment has never been thought to be part of the criminal justice system,” he said. “They are two separate spheres of government control and government authority.”
Most of the argument for why this is constitutional is simply: It's necessary, and therefore it's constitutional. But I'm not even sure it's necessary.I disagreed with the Hendricks case back in '97 and, if this case goes against the inmates (which looks likely), I'll disagree with this too.
It's not that pedophiles and sex offenders aren't dangerous and that we don't need to be protected; it's the method (civil commitment) we go about this. If these people are truly as dangerous as the government insists, just give them the appropriate life sentence (LWOP if necessary) in the criminal justice system and stop playing what amounts to a dishonest shell game of labels.
This idea that when you get done being a criminal, you're suddenly mentally ill and we can hold you under civil commitment and give you "treatment," makes a mockery of due process. Because if it's pedophiles who are "crazy" and can be locked up indefinitely today, then who's next? DUI offenders? Citizens behind on their taxes? Persons who criticize the government?
The case is U.S. v. Comstock (2010) and a decision is expected by June.