Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Is Civil Commitment Fair?

"When you've done your time, you deserve a chance." That is the logic that governs a lot of crimes.

When someone goes back to a life of robbery or drug dealing, society pays a heavy price. But what about sex criminals, whose return to their former ways has far more grievous consequences? Back in 1990, Washington State initiated civil commitment for such high risk offenders. For a small class of sex offenders who had done their time, it was devastating news as the trend spread to other states. Victims viewed it far differently.

Martin Andrews was 13 years old when he was abducted and repeatedly raped over an eight day period before being left to die in the woods in a metal box. He shed his anonymity when the spectre of his tormentor's release became imminent. CNN reported as follows concerning his ordeal.

As a teenager in Portsmouth in 1973, Andrews was walking to the store in snowy weather when a van pulled up and the man inside asked the boy whether he wanted to earn some extra money moving furniture. Andrews agreed but instead was taken to a rural area and a metal box dug into the side of a hill.

"He looked at me, and he said, 'I've got bad news for you. You've just been kidnapped."

What followed was days of brutal rapes and beatings. Ausley eventually left, and Andrews would certainly have died if some rabbit hunters had not stumbled upon him after hearing his screams.

Andrews believes that civil commitment is not the best tool, but for the most dangerous predators, "it is the only tool we have that is 100 percent effective, because they are removed from society. They are removed from their triggers."

The arguments concerning Richard Ausley and his wish for freedom from administrative confinement have hit the Supreme Court.CNN reported on the spirited debate in the Supreme Court concerning civil confinement, its disturbing legal implications and its equally disturbing public safety implications. Ruth Bader Ginsburg voiced some common sense concerns for public safety. CNN noted this as follows.

"Why doesn't the federal government's authority to have custody because of the criminal justice system end when the criminal justice system is exhausted?" said Chief Justice Roberts. "In other words, when the sentence is done?"

"You are talking about endangering the health and safety of people, so the government has some responsibility, doesn't it?" countered Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg."

The Supreme Court is hearing a case concerning 77 inmates in Virginia who are civilly confined beyond their original sentences. There are about 4000 inmates nationwide who are confined under similar terms. This case has legal implications for all such inmates.

There are two possible legal solutions to the problem of sexual predators. One is the habitual criminal statutes on the books in most states. It is possible to confine someone for life who has committed a series of felonies. Even shoplifters can be put away for life. What better a class of offenders to target with these statutes than violent sexual predators?

Then there is the matter of honest sentences. Too often you hear of a life sentence that is really only 20 years. Bring back "natural life" sentences, where a person finishes their sentence at room temperature. Additionally, have sentences that reflect the anger and indignation of the public. There are too many perpetrators of horrific offenses who get incredibly lenient offenses. Where is the will of the people and the victims in sentencing?

Unfortunately, we have far too many people who have finished sentences that were far too lenient. Civil confinement is an attempt to redress this. Such measures should continue. But it would be far better to redo the sentences in our criminal codes.

Martin Andrews finally got the redress he wanted when his Richard Ausley was killed before he could be released from prison. But there are still too many Ausleys out there. Civil commitment for now and harsher sentences in the future would be the right thing to do. Our law makers should try to make this happen. And the courts should let it happen as well.

No comments: