Government News
Supervising Sex Offenders Will Prevent Recidivism, Congress Believes
Psychiatric News
Volume 37 Number 15 page 4-4

Sex offenders could be required to be supervised for a lifetime if a bill passed by the House of Representatives in June is enacted.

The Lifetime Consequences for Sex Offenders Act of 2002 would allow federal judges to impose supervision terms on sex offenders once they are released from prison that are longer than the five-year maximum supervision time judges can impose now.

Rep. George Gekas (R-Pa.), who introduced the bill, said in a press release, "This is a common-sense measure aimed at protecting potential victims of sexual predators. The high rate of recidivism among sex offenders makes this legislation a necessary tool in protecting the innocent from repeat criminals."

The judges with whom Gekas said he spoke on the issue "expressed grave concern about releasing serious sex offenders without the ability to check on their progress," he indicated.

Howard Zonana, M.D., former chair of APA’s Commission on Judicial Action and editor of a 1999 report by the APA Task Force on Sexually Dangerous Offenders, commented to Psychiatric News, "Studies have shown that increasing sex offenders’ supervision can have some impact on recidivism, but it also depends on the extent of the supervision and whether treatment is also provided. Many programs require treatment and supervision now."

The task force’s report condemns these civil commitment statutes and the motivation behind them. It points out that "their broad definitions of mental abnormality" are troubling because they "establish a nonmedical definition of what purports to be a clinical condition without regard to scientific and clinical knowledge. In doing so, legislators have used psychiatric commitment to effect nonmedical societal ends that cannot be openly avowed."

The APA task force was created and the report developed in response to a 1997 Supreme Court ruling (Kansas v. Hendricks) that said it is legal for states to commit sex offenders to psychiatric hospitals once they have completed prison sentences if state officials believe they are a continuing danger to the community. No finding of a DSM-IV psychiatric disorder was required for such a commitment. By 1999, several states had joined Kansas in enacting such laws, often called "sexual predator" statutes.

The Court’s majority was unswayed by arguments made by APA and other organizations that such forced commitments were inappropriate since the convicted sex offenders covered by the laws do not necessarily suffer from a treatable psychiatric disorder. APA insisted that if states want the option of continuing confinement for dangerous sex offenders, they should pass laws increasing prison sentences rather than dumping these individuals in a mental health system that is already overburdened and unprepared to treat them.

The House bill was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which as of July 15 had not taken it up.

The text of the bill can be accessed on the Web at http://thomas.loc.gov by searching on the bill number, HR 4679.

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