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I’m a few days late on this, but please forgive me: Kansas isn’t always on my radar. Regardless, a fascinating piece from the Kansas City Star on Saturday delved into the contentioous issue of “civil committment” – a practice in which offenders are locked up with no release date.
In the program’s nearly 20-year history, it’s been more likely that a resident will leave in a hearse than walk out to rejoin society. So far, only three have earned their freedom. Twenty-two have died.
What’s happening in Kansas is unfolding in Missouri and 18 other states that have similar civil commitment laws aimed at protecting the public while giving program residents a chance to change their lurid behavior.
Nationwide studies estimate that more than 5,000 sex offenders are confined in such programs at an annual cost of more than $500 million — much more expensive than prison, sometimes three times as much.
“It is not sustainable,” said Maia Christopher, executive director of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.
There also is a growing concern that programs are drifting away from their original goal of treatment into a legally gray area that could bump up against the U.S. Constitution.
The piece goes into similar issues in other states, then gives some interesting background farther down in the piece:
The first legal challenge to the program’s constitutionality came through a case brought by Leroy Hendricks, who had a 40-year history of molesting children and was the first man committed under the Kansas law.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the state in 1997. However, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who voted with the majority, warned that if treatment was a “sham or mere pretext,” then the law could not pass constitutional muster.
“If the civil system is used simply to impose punishment after the state makes an improvident plea bargain on the criminal side, then it is not performing its proper function,” Kennedy wrote.
Kennedy also foresaw that few people would be released once committed.
“Notwithstanding its civil attributes, the practical effect of the Kansas law may be to impose confinement for life,” the justice said.
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