Courtesy of Jonathan Weker, M.D.
Jonathan Weker, M.D.: "This is a misuse of a process long used to
treat people with mental illness."
The Vermont legislature rejected a measure last month to establish a
civil-commitment program for people convicted of sex crimes, legislation that
was overwhelmingly opposed by Vermont psychiatrists.
By a vote of 77-59, the Vermont House rejected an attempt to add the
program as an amendment to legislation aimed at toughening penalties and
expanding prosecution of sexual offenders. The bill (H 856) would have
increased minimum sentences for people convicted of sexual assault and
included the possibility of a life sentence for these crimes.
The legislation also would have also made treatment programs available to
virtually all sexual offenders.
The heavily debated amendment would have allowed the state to keep already
incarcerated people in custody after their sentence is over through civil
commitment, if they are deemed a significant risk to the public's safety.
"The purpose of this was to find a way to keep people locked up who
had completed their jail terms," said Jonathan Weker, M.D., who is the
Vermont Psychiatric Association (VPA) representative to the APA Assembly and
helped lead opposition to the measure. "This is a misuse of a process
long used to treat people with mental illness."
The measure was opposed by 95 Vermont psychiatrists who signed a petition
against the proposal that was presented to legislators the morning of the
The program lumped multiple patient populations together, including those
with antisocial personality disorder, who may not benefit from such treatment.
It also blurred the distinction between mental illness and criminal behavior,
The measure's sponsor, Rep. Tom DePoy (R), said the program was needed to
address violent sexual offenders scheduled to be released in a few years, he
told local media.
The measure stemmed, in part, from the highly publicized Vermont case of a
man convicted of molesting a girl for four years beginning when she was age 6,
who a judge sentenced to only a 60-day minimum sentence. Following nationwide
outrage and calls by the governor for his resignation, the judge amended the
sentence to three to 10 years.
The sexual offender legislation was discussed by legislators last year but
picked up momentum when Gov. Jim Douglas (R) threw his support behind creation
of a civil-commitment program for sexual offenders.
"Vermont must take another important and necessary step by ensuring
that the most dangerous and violent sexual offenders are not released into our
communities until, and unless, there has been a determination that the
offender does not pose a danger to the public," Douglas said in a
statement. "That is exactly what a civil-commitment statute would
The program created by the amendment would have been much more limited than
one proposed by Douglas, which would have made sexual offenders as well as
other violent offenders eligible for civil commitment.
Psychiatrists were joined in their opposition to the program by a coalition
led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Vermont.
"The VPA petition was a big part of the reason we were able to stop
this legislation," Allen Gilbert, executive director of the ACLU of
Vermont, told Psychiatric News.
If enacted, the program could face a constitutional challenge, according to
the ACLU branch, because the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Kansas v.
Hendricks allowed involuntary civil commitment for sexual offenders if
the main goal is treatment of an offender's proven mental illness. If a
program's goal is simply an extended jail sentence, it fails the
The Vermont proposal would have put the facility for holding involuntary
committed sexual offenders at an existing prison, which implies the purpose of
the program was incarceration rather than treatment.
In 1999 APA's Task Force on Sexually Dangerous Offenders reported that the
treatment approach most likely to have an effect on recidivism is multimodal
and combines pharmacological, cognitive, and behavioral treatments and relapse
prevention (Psychiatric News, November 18, 2005). The task force
issued a report that opposed the sexual predator laws that established
postincarceration civil commitment because the laws misused psychiatry to
detain a class of people for whom confinement rather than treatment was the
At least 16 states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing
authorities to confine violent sexual offenders to psychiatric hospitals after
their prison terms are over.
Several other state legislatures are considering measures to enact
civil-commitment programs for sex ual offenders.
A California bill would expand the term of civil commitment from two years
to five years. New York legislation would fund a new secure facility and
treatment programs for sexual predators upon their prison release. A Virginia
bill would expand the list of crimes qualifying as sexually violent offenses
and make perpetrators of such crimes eligible for civil commitment.
Nebraska legislation would increase the number of people eligible to go
through the state's civil-commitment process. A South Dakota bill would
establish a civil-commitment procedure for people judged to be violent sexual
predators, allowing them to be confined for treatment until they are deemed
Kansas, which in 1991 became the first state to allow indefinite
confinement of violent sexual predators for treatment after they have served
their prison sentences, is considering measures to increase prison sentences
for such prisoners. Those measures may lead to a major reduction in the use of
civil commitment, according to local media.