As a way of locking up political dissidents and other incorrigibles, the former Soviet Union would pronounce them insane and commit them to secured mental institutions.
This repressive tool to eliminate undesirables from society is beginning to catch on in this country. A number of states, including Florida, have adopted laws to commit sex offenders after they serve out their prison terms as a way to keep them from being released.
Civil commitment is a valid therapeutic measure, but its legitimacy is muddled when it is bent to serve a fearful public as a way of keeping ex-convicts off the street.
Defenders of the Jimmy Ryce Act, Florida's new civil commitment law, claim that commitment to a mental institution is a way to provide treatment to mentally ill pedophiles. Well, if there is psychiatric treatment available to address the mental problems of sex offenders, then it should be offered while they're locked up. Our Constitution, however, prohibits ex post facto laws; punishments for crimes cannot be retroactively extended. Yet civil commitments tagged onto the end of prison terms do just that.
Nonetheless, the process was approved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997. By a 5-4 ruling the court let stand a Kansas law allowing for the indefinite commitment of dangerous sex offenders. The majority bought the state's claim that the law was not meant as further punishment but as an opportunity to provide treatment for the offenders' mental illness. Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the dissenters, pointed out the disingenuousness of this argument. "When a state believes that treatment (for sex offenders) does exist, and then couples that admission with a legislatively required delay of such treatment until a person is at the end of his jail term (so that further incapacitation is therefore necessary), such a legislative scheme begins to look punitive," wrote Breyer.
In addition to constitutional concerns, there are pragmatic ones. In Florida, prosecutors, public defenders and courts have not been given any additional resources to handle the expected increase of these cases, which could number in the hundreds per year.
The Department of Children and Families, which is responsible for recommending inmates for commitment and for providing secured facilities for those committed, has only been given enough money for a 60-bed facility. Meanwhile the Department of Corrections estimates that as many as 1,200 inmates scheduled for release next year could qualify for civil commitment. It's expected that 15 to 20 percent of those will actually be given a trial. And committed inmates may petition for release every year, which means commitment trials may multiply exponentially.
Legislators say these claims are overblown. Rep. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, who sponsored the Ryce Act in the House, said that the projection of hundreds of commitments are a "Fig Newton in someone's imagination." But with the built-in pressures all in favor of civil commitment, Florida should expect a deluge. The Legislature had better start looking for a way to pay for it all. Keeping these people, who have already paid their debt to society, locked up indefinitely is going to be very expensive.