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Sex Offense + Civil Commitment = A Second Prison Sentence

Time served should be just that, a sentence of time decided by the court that has a beginning and an end.

Apparently this is not so for sex offenders.  Some sex offenders seem to be getting caught up in the age old practice of what is known as “Civil Commitment” or what many sex offenders are calling a “second prison sentence”.

Civil commitment has gone from being a means for physicians and psychiatrists to involuntarily confine and treat those with mental illnesses who couldn’t make good sound judgements for themselves, to a means of confining those who have already served their prison sentences but who the courts deem ” too dangerous” to be out and about in society.

Hospitalization for the mentally ill began back in the 1200’s.  As centuries passed, mentally ill were often housed in prisons or poor houses.  Soon after, private and then public asylums began sprouting up.  The era of long term,state-funded mental institutions was born. For the most part, hospitalizations were not voluntary. Wealthy families were often able to have the “odd, immoral, assertive or too vocal” relative confined for the right price. The ineffective treatments available were limited to harsh and often “experimental” drugs, ice baths and restraints. Populations of these facilities swelled. If patients were ever released, they often found they had lost not only custody of their childrn but all their personal property and many of their civil liberties. State commitment standards back then were considered satisfied as long as the state “provided for the incapacitated”.

By the 20th century society recognized that there were inherent abuses in the civil commitment system. Legal protections were put in place to guard citizens rights from over-use and abuse of involuntary hospitalizations. Trials with attorney representation became standard and the power to commit was removed from physicians and given instead to judges. As one would expect, this didn’t work very well.  Courts backed up, attorneys weren’t always available and people waited endlessly in jails for their day in court.

In 1951 the Draft Act Governing Hospitalization of the Mentally Ill was put in place, restoring the power making decision for civil commitments back to psychiatrists. About the same time, new medications were introduced and low and behold, people who had been locked-up for years and seen as hopeless were able to be treated on an out-patient basis, with success!

By the 1960’s state hospitals were starting to be viewed as nothing but treatment-less warehouses for the mentally ill.  Americans were no longer willing to have their hard-earned tax dollars support costly and inhumane facilities that did little to benefit the mentally ill. By the 1990’s many state facilities across the country had closed, and more and more people were treated, effectively on an out-patient basis.

A new standard for civil commitment was put into place. A person must first be determined to have a legitimate mental health diagnosis before they could be hospitalized against their will and secondly, that person had to pose an imminent threat to themselves or others or be so “gravely disabled” that they could not survive if left to their own resources .

And now, here is where the problem for sex offenders comes in.

A few weeks ago Central NY Psychiatric Center was in the news for keeping offenders who had completed their sentence, locked up “indefinitely”, for further treatment.

This week it’s a detention center in Littlefield, Texas.

For one particular inmate, Jason Schoenfeld, a prison sentence served, doesn’t mean freedom.

Texas has decided that Schoenfeld, along with the other 200 men confined in Littlefield, are a “continuing danger to society” even though the time specific sentences dished out by the courts, have been met. So, they are held under “civil commitment”.

While it’s illegal for states to imprison people even if they are deemed “a real, continuing and serious danger to society”, in 1997 the Supreme Court ruled that these same people could be “confined in order to treat them”. Tomato, tomata, potato, potata. Aren’t the courts just mincing words here.? Imprisoning, confining, it’s pretty much the same thing isn’t it?

The courts get away with it by adding the phrase “in order to treat them”.

Now that would be all well and good if there was actual treatment going on.

Jason Schoenfeld originally had therapy sessions every 2 weeks at the facility. They are now once every 3 months.

Jason doesn’t have the option of pursuing treatment on his own, “outside” the facility.  He is not allowed to leave.  For all intents and purposes, Jason remains a prisoner, even though his original sentence has been served. He is serving a “second sentence”.

Very few leave Littlefield.

In 30 years, 5 men have exited the program. Four were let go because they required medical care, I’m not certain about the fifth, either he miraculously won his way out or left in a pine box.

Because they are being held involuntarily we have to assume that Jason and the other 200 men at Littlefield have met the criteria for civil commitment by having a verifiable psychiatric diagnosis and by being proven to be a danger to themselves or others. But are they an “imminent” danger.?

These men are held on civil commitment in order to receive further treatment according to the Supreme Court.

But what kind of treatment are these men receiving?

According to the law, the program at the facility needs to be a therapeutic program. A counseling session once every 3 months certainly can’t be considered a therapeutic program. Out-patient counseling is more often than once every 3 months!

I wonder if Jason received any sex offender treatment while he was actually serving the prison sentence he was given? It seems that when he was sentenced for his offense, some judge somewhere had to have determined that X amount of years would be sufficient time to pay for his crime. What’s changed?

According to the men at Littlefield, staff turnover is high and everytime they are assigned a new therapist, treatment starts from “the beginning” again.  At that rate, there is no way to advance in treatment, no way to ever get out. The path to freedom for these men has a “treatment roadblock” a mile wide that they can never get around.

I wish I could say that Littlefield, is the exception to the rule when it comes to this civil commitment debacle.  But it’s not.  People across this country who have already served their court mandated sentences are being caught up in this archaic prison system facade.  “If we call it something other than prison, let’s say for instance, civil commitment, then it’s not really prison.”

That’s pure BS and the courts know it.

The purpose of civil commitment has always been to prevent “imminent danger or harm” to one’s self or others, it was never meant to serve as a “crystal ball” in predicting the future “dangerousness” of anyone.

Have we learned nothing about the horrors of ongoing institutionalization in all these years?

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