The Sexist

It’s Legal to Keep Sex Offenders In Prison “Indefinitely.” But Can We Fix Them?

Today, the Supreme Court decided that sex offenders can be kept in prison "indefinitely"—regardless of the length of their sentences—if they are considered still "sexually dangerous." Our government reserves the right to exert complete control over the lives of sex offenders, possibly until they die. Is that enough time to rehabilitate them?

The background on the ruling, via the Associated Press:

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that federal officials can indefinitely hold inmates considered "sexually dangerous" after their prison terms are complete.

By a 7-2 vote, the high court reversed a lower court decision that said Congress overstepped its authority in allowing indefinite detentions of considered "sexually dangerous."

"The statute is a 'necessary and proper' means of exercising the federal authority that permits Congress to create federal criminal laws, to punish their violation, to imprison violators, to provide appropriately for those imprisoned and to maintain the security of those who are not imprisoned by who may be affected by the federal imprisonment of others," said Justice Stephen Breyer, writing the majority opinion.

President George W. Bush in 2006 signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which authorized the civil commitment of sexually dangerous federal inmates.

The act, named after the son of "America's Most Wanted" television host John Walsh, was challenged by four men who served prison terms ranging from three to eight years for possession of child pornography or sexual abuse of a minor. Their confinement was supposed to end more than two years ago, but prison officials said there would be a risk of sexually violent conduct or child molestation if they were released.

If our government is going to keep these offenders under lock and key until they're no longer "sexually dangerous," it better be doing everything in its power to attempt to make them safe. But if we put all our efforts toward rehabilitation, can we actually stop sex offenders from abusing again?

This 2007 New York Times story on "relapse prevention" rehabilitation programs for sex offenders suggests that the answer is "maybe." Take the case of Bill Price, a former Sunday-school-teaching pedophile who has admitted to abusing 21 children. Price's rehabilitation plan is targeted at reducing all risk of offending again, once he's back in society:

A requirement of his treatment, the plan catalogs on five single-spaced pages the tactics Mr. Price has learned to stop molesting.

There are 42 so far, including avoiding places where children congregate, abstaining from alcohol, shunning the Internet and sniffing ammonia whenever he has a deviant thought.

“It was just like a hunt for me,” Mr. Price, 59, a former Sunday school teacher, said of his sexual crimes. “I kept choosing children because they were easier prey; they were easier to deal with than women.”

But will the 42-step plan work? History says probably not:

Treatment plans like Mr. Price’s, known as relapse prevention, have been a cornerstone of efforts to reform sex offenders for the past 20 years. Yet there is no convincing evidence that the approach works, or that others do either.

Similar to aspects of Alcoholics Anonymous, relapse prevention has sex offenders own up to wrongdoing and resign themselves to a lifelong day-to-day struggle with temptation. But one of the few authoritative studies of the method, conducted in California from 1985 to 2001, found that those who entered relapse prevention treatment were slightly more likely to offend again than those who got no therapy at all.

A relapse prevention plan like Price's isn't the only approach to rehabilitating sex offenders, but no other approach has been found any more successful—except, of course, for keeping them locked up. For a few reasons, sex offender rehabilitation is still very much an evolving discipline.  Some look down upon allocating resources to helping people who abuse children; since it can be difficult to get pedophiles to talk, the sample groups here can be very small; some offenders will simply play along in order to get out of jail. One lawyer interviewed in the Times story refers to sex offenders undergoing rehabilitation programs as "living experiments."

So far, the gains that have been made in the field of sex offender rehabilitation have not been very encouraging. One study showed that after five years, 15 percent of released sex offenders would offend again. Medical methods of treatment—like chemical castration—have an undetermined effect on re-offending rates. And methods used to figure out which convicts are likely to offend again—like polygraph tests and "penile plethysmograph" tests—are inconclusive.

Particularly in light of the Supreme Court ruling, it's clear that a great deal more research needs to be done. In the meantime, the best way we know to stop re-offending may actually be waiting a very long time: "research has also suggested that even lifelong offenders tend to stop, for the most part, by the time they reach their 70s."

Photo via laurapadgett, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

  • Anonymous

    Good 'ol society has turned a blind eye to what really is going on. Thousands of kids who's only offense was to look at Internet pornography have been snagged in the "Sexual Offender" net, cast by law enforcement agencies. Many are not sexual predators at all. Many commit suicide because there is no way out once you are in the system. All have no future. May the guy who has never looked at online porn cast the first stone.

  • kza

    You can't let these people out in the world but I don't want my tax dollars going towards keeping them in prison.

  • Tasty Snatch

    Then let's kill them and use they're organs (if they are viable) for people awaiting transplants.

  • Grumpy

    This would be effective if it actually would be used against sexual predators. It will probably end up being used against 'innocents' (19 year old bf of a 17 year old with pissed off parents or bitter ex's falsely accusing dad of molestation, etc.) instead of the intended targets.

  • kza

    I agree with Tasty Snatch.

  • Native JD in DC

    When they come for the sexual deviants, who will stand with me?

  • noodlez

    @Native JD in DC-RICK MANGUS!

  • kathy

    I can't think of a better way to spend my tax dollars!

  • squirrely girl

    Grumpy - the 19 year old with a 17 year old g/f story is WAY overplayed much the same as those who know how to word date rape to make it sound more "gray" than it may have actually been. Am I saying this scenario NEVER occurs... no! I know it does. But offenders in general are GREAT at rewording their offenses to sound less heinous than they really are.

    Having spent a number of years working with adolescent sex offenders in state's custody I'm honestly torn on this ruling. On one hand I certainly see the need to protect society from repeat offenders... prisons are holding patterns and very rarely seek to treat or rehabilitate offenders of any crime, least of all sex crimes. But I also believe there are offenders who CAN control their urges and given the opportunity to live in a HIGHLY structured and supervised environment COULD function outside of a traditional prison setting. However, these settings are hard to come by and not every offender wants to be subjected to this type of "community control" post release. It really is about finding balance... and judgments SHOULD be made on a case-by-case basis.

    As to the issue of treatment - I just don't believe a "cure" exists. Changing one's sexual orientation or sexuality is near impossible, contrary to the hopes and dreams of the ex-gay movement. For example, spend a day trying to become sexually attracted to children... it's just not that easy. Telling pedophiles that they're wrong and amoral does nothing to change their desires or orientations. Most of them *know* and can/will tell you what they're doing is wrong. Research has shown us that child molesters tend to have poorer social skills, lower IQs, unhappy family histories, lower self-esteem, and less happiness in their lives... so how do we use this in treatment, prevention, community safety, etc.?

    And while I can appreciate relapse prevention as much as the next person... most relapse prevention efforts focus on behavior that is harmful to the individual themselves (e.g., drinking, drugs) NOT behaviors that are harmful toward another person... particularly persons that are children. Likewise, addicts can avoid bars and places where drugs are readily available, but children permeate MANY aspects of society and aren't easily avoided unless you are a total hermit or recluse. Sometimes just seeing an "attractive" child is enough of a trigger... and triggers can't always be predicted. I believe that people with this little self control DO need to be removed from society... as long as that remains an issue for them.

    As to the assertion that, “research has also suggested that even lifelong offenders tend to stop, for the most part, by the time they reach their 70s," I believe that this is also worthy of continued debate or research consideration, particularly when considering what "for the most part" means in real life to real victims.

    Again, torn. I really just don't know what to do here...

  • the prodigal

    To keep prisoners in prison past the term of their sentence violates the Fifth Amendment: ". . . nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . ."

    If they want to keep "dangerous" sexual predators off the streets, either sentence the predator to life in prison without parole or sentence them to death and execute them.

  • Tasty Snatch

    As long as the sexual deviance is consensual and LEGAL among every human involved, then they won't becoming after you.

    But seriously, if they are that dangerous we should be allowed harvest these people for their organs so that law abiding citizens can make good use of these sex offender's viable and disease free organs.

    At one point chmeical castration was being used to control violent sex offenders who were on the pseudo-mend. Was it even effective? Was it a voluntary procedure or a mandated one? Do states still do it?

  • Kristina

    Several studies show that group cognitive behavioral therapy significantly reduces the rate of recidivism for sexual offenders enrolled in sex offender treatment programs. Yes, there are somewhere between 11% and 15% of offenders who re-offend, (depending upon which study you ask), but should the 85-89% who are helped be ignored? What these numbers mean is that there is not help for everyone, but for the vast majority there is. We need more stringent guidelines on when and how and to whom this population can be released after an appropriate intervention program. You can't change someone's sexuality, but you can work on impulse control, empathy, and interpersonal relations, which have all been shown to be lacking in sex offender populations.

    That said, they should NOT be in prison. A large portion of sex offenders need mental health treatment. For that matter, a large portion of offenders in general need mental health treatment. Prison populations have eight times the prevalence of mental disorder as the general population. It is joked that prisons are the new mental health facilities, but, frankly, I don't find that funny. We should be rehabilitating people so that they do NOT recidivate, not housing them and hoping that the horrors they face in prison will improve their mental status. I think the first focus should be improving mental health care for inmates so that they are less likely to do it again. Will some still recidivate? Sure. Hence the 15% statistic quoted by Amanda above. But that doesn't mean that nobody is helped by these programs...

  • Kristina

    @Tasty Snatch

    Yes, some states still do it. Some prisoners elect to have it done if they do not believe they can properly control their urges and actually want to. Alternatively, it can be ordered by the courts or by practitioners who feel that it is in the prisoner's best interests.

    The problem with the organ-harvesting proposition is that there is human error involved here. One could potentially condemning an innocent or non-dangerous human being to death. And even without that error, there is also the fact that they are still human beings. They have had other challenges in their lives, with about 50% having been sexually abused at some point. That number goes up while they are in prison because apparently it's alright to rape someone if they are bad. I personally think that all humans should be treated with respect. Detained until non-dangerous in an appropriate mental health facility, absolutely. But still treated with respect. Human life is valuable.

  • Seda

    This is no good. Sexual assault is definitely particularly gruesome in any form, but legally it is indistinguishable from any other crime committed against another person (or corporation). When will the courts decide that they can hold any prisoner, indefinitely, until they are sure the won't commit the same or similar crimes again? I am certainly a fan of individuals choosing to firebomb an offender's home or, you know, do whatever to keep them from offending again but state oppression like this is a whole separate issue. I'm thinking nice, dark tattoos on their foreheads might curb the recidivism rate.