Section 7: The Legal and Legislative Response
1 Hour, 30 Minutes


Part VI: Sexually Violent Predator/Civil Commitment Laws

Several times throughout this training we have referenced concerns about the tendency to apply to juveniles the same legislation, policies, and practices that were designed for adult sex offender management. As we have just discussed in detail in this section, there is some controversy about the manner by which sex offender registration and community notification laws have been applied to juveniles. Similarly, the application of civil commitment statues to juvenile sex offenders is also controversial.

Use SlideUse Slide #30: Civil Commitment Laws

Broadly speaking, civil commitment is a longstanding mechanism designed for individuals who suffer from such significant mental health difficulties that they pose a danger to themselves or others. The indeterminate commitment to a mental health facility provides for treatment and other rehabilitative services until such time that the person is “safe” to return to the community. Keep in mind that this is not a criminal procedure that involves a sentence to a correctional institution; rather it is a civil procedure that allows for commitment to a secure mental health facility.

More recently, several states have expanded their civil commitment laws to include sexually violent predators, a subset of the sex offender population that represents—at least in theory—the most dangerous offenders, and those who pose the greatest threat to communities. Commonly, these specific statutes are known as sexually violent predator (SVP) laws and apply to sex offenders who have some type of “mental defect or abnormality” that predisposes them to commit sexually violent offenses and that affects their ability to control their behavior, and who are deemed “more likely than not” to commit additional sexually violent offenses if they are not placed in a secure facility for treatment.

Sex offenders are typically considered for commitment under SVP statutes as they near the expiration of a prison sentence and prior to their presumptive release date. And by definition, many SVP laws technically allow for the indefinite commitment of some sex offenders. These factors alone have led some to question civil commitment of sex offenders from a constitutionality perspective. I’m not here to review any of the constitutional issues. Rather, for the purposes of this training, I raise the issue of civil commitment because of the concerns about its application to juveniles, given what we know about these youth.

Use SlideUse Slide #31–32: Concerns With Applying Civil Commitment Laws to Juveniles
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To reiterate, for example, the observed sexual recidivism rates of juvenile sex offenders overall are quite low, particularly for youth who have received treatment. Moreover, remember what we discussed about the impact that adult–oriented dispositions have had on outcomes with juveniles, including the increased potential for these youth being victimized within adult institutions. And the concerns that exist about aggregating groups of antisocial individuals—especially placing youth with highly sophisticated and predatory adults. In light of those issues, you can probably understand why civil commitment for juvenile sex offenders is quite controversial.

And there is also the issue about how to determine which individuals are the most dangerous and should be civilly committed. For example, some have argued that the type of diagnosis that could “qualify” an offender is too broad and does not limit the scope to the most dangerous. And given what we know about the high prevalence of co–occurring mental health needs among youthful populations, there may be concerns about the increased likelihood that some of these diagnoses could be “qualify” youth.

Still another related controversy surrounds the ability—or inability—of mental health experts to predict with accuracy the likelihood that any specific individual is “more likely than not” to commit additional sex offenses. You’ll recall that we briefly discussed this issue in the section of this training that focused on risk assessment. This issue is controversial in the field of adult sex offender management even with the availability of several empirically–validated actuarial risk assessment tools. So you can imagine, then, why this is an area of concern with juvenile sex offenders, given that the state of risk assessment for sexually abusive youth remains in its infancy, and that there are no true actuarial tools for these youth.

Use SlideUse Slide #33: SVP Civil Commitment Laws

Some of you may be wondering if civil commitment is truly an issue for youth—and whether or not states would actually consider committing youth for a potentially indefinite period under SVP statutes. The answer is “yes.” SVP statutes exist in 17 states (Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin). Some of these states already allow for juveniles to be committed under their SVP statutes (Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wisconsin), and other states have considered or are currently considering expanding their existing SVP/civil commitment statutes to include juveniles. And in general, youth convicted of a sexual offense in the criminal courts could be subject to state civil commitment laws, as they have technically become “adults” in the eyes of the courts.

Use SlideUse Slide #34: A Sample of State Civil Commitment Laws

Much like registration and notification, currently there is variation across states in how and whether juveniles are subject to civil commitment proceedings. For example:


Use SlideUse Slide #35: Summary

In this section, we’ve covered a lot of pretty technical—and potentially confusing—information in a relatively short amount of time. So let’s take a step back for a moment and review the key points.

Unfortunately, some of these well intended strategies—either in terms of the policy itself or the manner in which it is carried out—may not have been fully informed by contemporary knowledge in the field about sexually abusive youth, and stakeholders may not be aware of the potential for unintended consequences for juveniles, their families, and victims of juvenile–perpetrated sexual violence.

Juvenile sex offenders, just like adult offenders, must be held accountable for their sexually abusive behavior. And we also want to make sure that we do all that we can to see that they receive the necessary interventions, services, and system responses that will allow them to continue in life as law–abiding, healthy, and positive contributors in our communities. This means that we must take great care in how we craft and implement our intervention and management strategies—whether treatment, supervision, or legislation—so that we maximize the likelihood that they will be successful and minimize the likelihood of harm to these youth and their families. As we’ve said previously, the success of these youth translates into safety in our communities.

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