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Several states are civilly committing sex offenders when their prison terms end. Observers say nationwide data on the practice is needed to shed light on how widespread it is and whether it is effective.
Looking to confine sexual offenders deemed a continuing risk to the public, lawmakers in 20 states, plus Washington, D.C., and Congress, passed laws around the turn of the millennium allowing for the involuntary civil commitment of these convicted offenders when their prison terms ended. But nearly a quarter of a century later, there is no national data on the practice.
No federal office has ever gathered information on these programs to keep track of the number of people committed, costs or efficacy, said Wanda Bertram, spokesperson for the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative, but that may change soon if, as a new report by her organization states, the Bureau of Justice Statistics begins collecting data on the programs next month.
According to a report issued by the Prison Policy Initiative, it is estimated that more than 6,000 people convicted of sex offenses who completed their prison terms are now locked up in civil commitment facilities. It isn’t clear when any will be released, according to the report.
Emma Peyton Williams, author of the report, said that the civil commitment programs are not transparent about the numbers of prisoners they hold or the kinds of treatment they offer. It’s challenging to keep track of how many people the states are holding because there isn’t a central database, she said.
“Reportedly, the Bureau of Justice Statistics intends to begin collecting data about indefinite post-sentence ‘civil’ confinements in June of 2023. Until that happens, it’s only possible to get aggregated counts of how many people are civilly committed—nothing like the individual-level information prison systems are expected to provide in the service of transparency and accountability,” the report states. “This is true across the U.S., as civil commitment facilities are housed under different agencies from state to state, which makes it exceedingly difficult to measure the full scope of these systems on a national level.”
The Bureau of Justice Statistics could not immediately confirm that it plans to begin collecting data on the programs.
The Supreme Court has found that the practice of civil confinement is constitutional, though some rights advocates, like the American Civil Liberties Union, have gone to court to contest the treatment of prisoners in certain facilities. Advocates for those who are committed say they shouldn’t be forgotten and they complain that the facilities don't offer treatment or a way for ex-offenders to reform and rejoin society.
“There’s no high-level treatment plan—just group therapy,” said Ed Yohnka, an ACLU spokesman in Illinois.
Ben Wolf, a former ACLU lawyer who sued to challenge the treatment of prisoners committed to an Illinois facility, said another troublesome aspect of these laws is that application of the law isn’t systematic. “Prosecutors arbitrarily decide, county by county, which ones they seek to commit. Some state’s attorneys are interested in committing a lot and some state’s attorneys are not.”
The random nature of the civil commitments, not just county to county, but state to state, can be seen in the numbers of people held. In 2022, according to the report, Illinois, with a 2020 population of 12.8 million people, was holding 525 former sex offenders through involuntary civil commitments. Texas, with a population of 29.2 million, was holding 415—more than 100 fewer former prisoners than Illinois. And Minnesota, with 5.7 million people living in the state, was holding 733 people in commitments—more than Illinois and Texas. Only California, with 946 convicted offenders held in civil commitments, had more than Minnesota.
”There is no evidence that having these programs reduces sexual assaults,” said Wolf. “We have a good lab: Lots of states have these programs and lots don’t. There is no appreciable difference [in the number of sexual assaults reported]. If the goal is community safety, the program is a failure.”
Wolf argues that rather than commit sex offenders to a life sentence behind locked doors, states should require them to take medication to dull their sexual impulses and monitor their compliance with random blood or urine samples. They could be required to check in with parole officers regularly, similar to the way the state monitors convicted drug offenders.
“This slap-dash civil commitment program is not the way to do it,” Wolf said.