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Civil Commitment for Sex Offenders

Some states have used civil commitment proceedings to remove habitual sex offenders from society for extended periods of time. The United States Supreme Court ruled in Kansas v. Hendricks (1997) that such laws do not violate the Constitution's double jeopardy or ex post facto clauses.

Minnesota's civil commitment law for habitual sex offenders is fairly typical. Under Minnesota law, a person classified as having a "sexual psychopathic personality" or denominated a "sexually dangerous person" may be committed indefinitely in a secure treatment facility. The commitment is intended to reduce the risk of future dangerous sexual behavior. It is not meant to serve a punishment for past crimes. Civilly committed sex offenders may be held for an indeterminate amount of time. In other words, they may be held as long as warranted to successfully treat them and to satisfy public safety concerns.

According to Minnesota's law, a person with a sexual psychopathic personality is one who:

  • Has engaged in a "habitual course" of misconduct in sexual matters
  • Suffers from an "utter lack of power to control" sexual impulses
  • As a result of this inability to control behavior is "dangerous to other persons"

A sexually dangerous person is defined as someone who has "engaged in a course of harmful sexual conduct." This conduct creates a "substantial likelihood" of serious physical or emotional harm to another. Moreover, the person must be diagnosed with a sexual, personality or mental disorder, and found likely to engage in harmful sexual conduct in the future.

A commitment hearing is held to determine whether civil commitment is warranted. This hearing is usually held shortly before a sex offender is to be released from prison. Commitment proceedings could also be commenced as part of a plea agreement. A petition may also be filed after a person has been released from prison on a conditional or supervised release. It is not necessary that a person have committed any further sexual offenses after the release from imprisonment.

A judge makes commitment determinations in Minnesota. The judge listens to evidence on both sides, which may include evidence of past sexual misconduct that did not result in an arrest or conviction. The state has the burden to prove that commitment is necessary, but its burden of proof is not as high as in a criminal case. If the judge finds by clear and convincing evidence that the individual is a sexual psychopathic personality or a sexually dangerous person, the person will be committed to a secure treatment facility operated by the Minnesota Sex Offender Program.

Officials generally have 60 to 90 days to evaluate the inmate and report back to the court once a person has been committed. The court then holds a second hearing to determine whether an indeterminate commitment is required.

Minnesota mainly relies on group therapy to treat civilly committed sex offenders. The offender progresses through three stages: the evaluation stage, the inpatient treatment stage and the transition stage. The inpatient treatment stage consists of four parts; an offender must pass each before progressing to the next stage. The parts are accountability, insight, integration/behavior change, and preparation for the transition stage.

A review board determines when discharge, transfer, or other change in status is appropriate. Requests for such a hearing may come from the patient, the patient's attorney, or the facility medical director. After a hearing, the review board recommends a course of action to the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services. The Commissioner then issues an order denying or granting the petition. The Commissioner's order is subject to appeal, ultimately by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

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