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Lawmakers review civil commitment for sex offenders in Minnesota

More than any other criminal activity, sex crimes seem to garner the most attention from the media. Those convicted -- or merely accused -- of committing sex offenses often have a very difficult time reintegrating into society. As a result of this, and pressure from the public, many individuals convicted of sex crimes receive are sentenced to by civilly committed. This practice is particularly prevalent in Minnesota.

The original intent of civil commitment programs was to rehabilitate those who were convicted of sexual offenses. States expanded these programs during the boom years of the 1990s in order to take a stronger stance on crime. Minnesota is one of 20 states with such programs. Now that the state faces budgetary challenges, the overwhelming cost of the programs has led many to question its effectiveness. On average, civil commitment costs four times as much as imprisonment.

Those individuals who are deemed likely to reoffend are regularly sentenced to civil commitment with the intent to reintegrate. In Minnesota, however, only one person has been successfully released from the civil commitment program. His release, which was heavily supervised, was met with tremendous public resistance.

One of the primary problems with this program is that it's very hard to determine, with certainty, which individuals are likely to reoffend. As for now, there is a standard psychological assessment, but it is not a fool-proof system.

The indefinite length of civil commitment terms puts the entire program in a legal gray area. If there is no foreseeable release date for individuals in the program, can it really be considered rehabilitation? A U.S. Supreme Court case answered this very question by saying that as long as the program is "non-punitive," it is legal. However, many people have challenged this notion, because the programs often do not differ significantly from prison time.

Knowing the serious nature of sex crimes, and the potentially indefinite time served in civil commitment, it is important that every step of the criminal process is handled sensitively. If a conviction is handed down, securing a fair sentence is a crucial part of criminal defense. As such, it is important to make sure that if a person is committed for rehabilitation they actually receive the appropriate treatment, rather than being held without the intention of being released.

Source: Salon, "America's expensive sex offenders," Hannah Rappleye, April 17, 2012

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