My father always referred to doing prison time as “paying one’s debt to society.” The assumption was the debt was finite and capable of being paid off eventually. People who paid this debt, he said, should be given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to rehabilitate themselves. But this article about events from Minnesota bothered me. A certain class of convicts is being singled out by the State for involuntary commitment to a locked down state mental institution after incarceration. This is all based on a fear that these individuals might commit some crime in the future. After a hearing at which the State purports to show that these individuals have a “mental abnormality” that will cause them to commit more of the same crimes, the individual is committed to a state mental facility. Just like that.
Other States have similar programs, including Arizona. But what sets those programs apart from Minnesota is that the individuals are eventually set free once they are able to establish themselves in treatment and convince a state psychologist they are no longer a threat to society, i.e., they are not likely to commit future crimes.
But not Minnesota.
In the twenty years this program has been in existence, and after over a thousand citizens have been committed to it, not one person has been released. Not one. In Kansas v. Hendricks, 521 U.S. 346 (1997), the United States Supreme Court approved a similar program for offenders, but placed limitations on those programs to bring them more in line with American beliefs on what is fair and just, including providing a way out for individuals who are committed against their will.
This whole program brings up some questions:
Are we punishing people for crimes they haven’t committed, but may commit in the future?
Are we punishing people for the way they think as opposed to what they do?
As a criminal defense attorney, I dedicate a significant portion of my practice to preventing governmental overreach like this. I work hard to make sure that the system follows the rules that it sets down for itself.
Does it matter that these individuals are sex offenders, a class of offenders that is reviled by society at large, and other convicts in general? What is to stop the government from classifying habitual car thieves as a danger to society and committing them to indefinite detention? Or drug addicts? Or chronic thieves?
All offenders should be treated equally regardless of their offense: if they do the time, the debt to society should be deemed paid. Indefinite detention is not the just answer.
For the original article, click here.