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Handbook Cover for Treatise on Internet Sex Crimes

Chapter 11:

Civil Commitment

Civil commitment involves the involuntary institutionalization of people with serious mental conditions. The 2006 Adam Walsh Act authorizes the civil commitment of dangerous sex offenders, and its civil commitment provisions have been upheld by the Supreme Court.[1] A “sexually dangerous person” is someone “suffering from a serious mental illness, abnormality, or disorder, as a result of which the individual would have serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation.”[2]

If someone authorized by the Attorney General or the Director of the BOP determines that a person scheduled for release qualifies as a “sexually dangerous person,” there will then be a court hearing. Before the hearing, there will likely be a psychiatric or psychological examination of the defendant. If, after the hearing, the court determines that there is sufficient evidence that the defendant is a sexually dangerous person, the Attorney General will place them under the custody of the appropriate state.

Once the director of the facility the person is under custody of determines that their “condition is such that he is no longer sexually dangerous to others, or will not be sexually dangerous to others if released under a prescribed regimen of medical, psychiatric, or psychological care or treatment,” the person will either be discharged or there will be another hearing to determine whether they should be released.[3]

A 2020 study found that 6,300 people are detained in state and federal civil commitment programs. Additionally, Black people faced a rate of sexually violent predator detention at more than twice that of white people, and men with male victims were two to three times as likely to be civilly committed than men with only female victims.[4] In general, “the civil commitment program is a very small program,” and very few sex offenders will actually be civilly committed.[5]

[1] Adam Walsh Act § 301; 18 U.S.C. § 4248; United States v. Comstock, 130 S. Ct. 1949 (2010).

[2] Adam Walsh Act § 301(e)(2); 18 U.S.C. § 4247

[3] 18 U.S.C. § 4248(e)

[4] Hoppe, T., H Meyer, I., De Orio, S., Vogler, S., & Armstrong, M. (2020). Civil commitment of people convicted of sex offenses in the United States. UCLA School of Law Williams Institute.

[5] Ellis, A. (2015, November 19). Sex Offenders—Part 2: Federal Prison – The Law Offices of Alan Ellis specializing In Federal Sentencing, Appeals, 2255 Habeas Corpus.

The American Psychological Association Task Force on Dangerous Sex Offenders issued the following statement regarding civil commitment:

“In the opinion of the Task Force, sexual predator commitment laws represent a serious assault on the integrity of psychiatry, particularly with regard to defining mental illness and the clinical conditions for compulsory treatment. Moreover, by bending civil commitment to serve essentially nonmedical purposes, sexual predator commitment statutes threaten to undermine the legitimacy of the medical model of commitment. In the opinion of the Task Force, psychiatry must vigorously oppose these statutes in order to preserve the moral authority of the profession and to ensure continuing societal confidence in the medical model of civil commitment.”[6]

[6] American Psychiatric Association, Dangerous Sex Offenders: a Task Force Report of the American Psychiatric Association (1999).

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