Few crimes result in the sort of outrage that surrounds sex offenses, particularly when the victim is a minor. An outraged public seeking vengeance, and in some cases the victimizers themselves, have called for one of the most remarkable punishments in the U.S. criminal justice system: surgical or chemical castration for sex offenders. Although this may seem like a radical approach, supporters say this is the only way to ensure public safety for those who aren't incarcerated.
This article explores the use of surgical and chemical castration for sex offenders, including different approaches by the states and criticism of the practice from opponents.
Currently several states, including California and Florida, permit convicted sex offenders to be injected with Depo Provera, an FDA-approved birth control drug. Often called "chemical castration," Depo Provera is meant to quell the sex drive of male sex offenders by lowering their testosterone levels. The drug does not render any permanent physical change to the body. The treatment is believed to be most effective on sex offenders who possess uncontrollable biological urges that take the form of sexual fantasies that are usually only satisfied by acting on the fantasy.
Both the California and Florida statutes provide for mandatory injections for repeat sex offenders, as well as discretionary injections for first-time offenders. Despite the mandatory language in the Florida law, the law has apparently been invoked only a few times since its passage in 1997. In California, at least 15 repeat sex offenders have requested surgical castration as a way to avoid indefinite incarceration and over the past three years, two offenders have been released from state mental hospitals following surgery.
Pursuant to a 1997 law, Texas permits surgical castration of offenders. By May 2005, three men had undergone the voluntary procedure. Candidates must be at least 21 years of age, have had at least two sex offense convictions, and have undergone at least 18 months of sex offender treatment, including Depo Provera injections, to understand how their bodies might react with less testosterone.
Alabama is the latest state to adopt a mandatory chemical castration law. The law forces adult sex offenders whose victims were 12 or younger to begin the treatment at least a month before getting released on parole and continue until a court determines that they can stop. Offenders must pay for their own treatment, though inability to pay cannot be used as grounds to deny parole.
States continue to experiment with various types of surgical and chemical castration for sex offenders. Colorado state prison officials have been experimenting with the administration of anti-depressants to offenders in order to determine whether they may be an effective tool in controlling their sexual compulsions.
Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), charge that chemical castration violates sex offenders' constitutional rights. The ACLU contends that chemical castration violates an offender's implied right to privacy under the Fourteenth Amendment, rights of due process and equal protection, and the Eighth Amendment's ban of cruel and unusual punishment.
Critics also question the effectiveness of surgical or chemical castration on sex offenders. Those subjected to castration may retain some sexual function. Even surgically castrated offenders have a small rate of recidivism. Furthermore, testosterone boosting drugs are available that can counteract the effects of castration.
Sex offenses are taken very seriously, particularly because they often are committed by individuals with serious mental health problems. But there is a whole range of sex offenses, ranging from indecent exposure and statutory rape to rape and other violent crimes. In some instances, the option of surgical or chemical castration for sex offenders may exist. If you're involved in such a case and have questions, a criminal defense attorney can help you understand your rights and legal options.