March 25, 2012

USA Today probe: Federal SVP program crumbling

Constitutionality of lengthy sex offender detentions questioned

In the six years since the U.S. government authorized civil detention for dangerous sex offenders, it has sought to commit 136 men. Out of those, it has won civil commitments of only 15, or 11 percent.

In contrast, it has either lost, or been forced to dismiss, 61 cases, or 45 percent. (Actually, make that 62.*)

The remaining 59 men (43 percent) are languishing in prison, locked in legal limbo while their cases await resolution. (A 136th man has died.)

An investigative report by USA Today paints a picture of federal prosecutors and their prison "experts" as flailing in their efforts to establish that they qualify as "sexually dangerous persons." The legal criteria for this designation include a history of sexually violent conduct or child molestation and a mental illness that would cause the person difficulty in refraining from such behavior if released.

I put the word "expert" in quotes because many of the prison psychologists drafted to conduct these evaluations and testify in court had no prior experience and little or no training when the law went into effect. As the former psychologist in charge told USA Today, "It was rushed, and initially, I believe, quality probably suffered."

The government's cases "have crumbled because of weak evidence, faulty psychological evaluations and an inability to convince judges the detainees have mental conditions so serious they will find it difficult to not re-offend," the USA Today reports. Due to the low levels of recidivism among convicted sex offenders, "even when the government can prove someone committed sex crimes, it has struggled to show he remains dangerous."

Brad Heath and Amanda Muscavage reviewed thousands of pages of legal filings and interviewed dozens of attorneys, psychologists and former detainees for their report. Their interactive website includes links to 290 documents that they have made available online.

USA Today reporter Brad Heath
In one amazing quote, the psychologist who formerly ran the civil commitment program at Butner, the prison in North Carolina where the detainees are being held, all but admits that clinicians certified men as sexually dangerous even knowing that they did not meet the legal criteria.

"If we thought someone was really dangerous but there wasn't a strong legal case, we might very well still push it for the public interest," Anthony Jimenez said. "Hopefully justice is served in the end."

This is the "consequentialist" approach advocated by some in the sex offender industry, who claim that sexually violent predator cases represent an exception to general forensic practice, in which the end (protecting the public) justifies the means. If anything, however, the high stakes involved when people are threatened with a loss of liberty for something that they might do in the future would seem to demand the opposite approach, of even greater caution and transparency in diagnosis and risk assessment.

As Fred Berlin, the director of the Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, told the reporters: "We need to be very, very careful in a free society about a system in which a group of people can make statements that result in someone being deprived of their liberty for a future crime. If it's going to be done, it has to be done in a just and fair manner."

One reason for the government’s quagmire is that the federal cases are decided by a judge, rather than a jury. The seasoned judges hearing these cases are less likely to let their emotional reactions to past crimes, some of them pretty upsetting, distract them from the government's legal burden of proof.

For example, in the recent trial of Markis Revland (which I blogged about HERE), the offender had admitted to 149 child molestations. However, the judge found that the government had failed to prove that any of these incidents actually happened, or that Revland had a genuine mental illness.

Similarly, at the trial of Jeffrey Neuhauser (which I blogged about HERE), the judge rejected the controversial label of "hebephilia" as a legitimate mental illness qualifying someone for involuntary detention.

Unfortunately, because they only had access to records that have been made public, the USA Today team didn't have the 411 on some of the most egregious attempts to civilly detain low-risk prisoners. In one case I am familiar with, the government spent four years pursuing civil commitment against a man who was quite clearly not mentally ill, not a rapist, not a pedophile, and not dangerous, only to dismiss the case on the eve of trial.

This case points to an aspect that I wished the USA Today team had delved into: The unusual nature of the federal sex offender population. Although those eligible for civil commitment are supposed to be the worst of the worst, in reality Butner's population is heavily weighted toward an unlikely admixture of:
  • Native Americans.
The second group was the surprise to me. Unlike routine sex offenses that are prosecuted in state courts, crimes committed on Indian reservations are federal offenses.

Up until now, neither the U.S. Justice Department nor any watchdog agency has expressed public concern with whether the the federal civil commitment scheme, with its haphazard and capricious implementation, passes Constitutional muster.

Hopefully, this USA Today report will bring some much-needed attention to just what is going on down there in North Carolina.

Prior blog posts about the federal civil commitment prosecutions:
*The situation remains fluid. Right after the publication of the USA Today report five days ago, I have learned that the government lost yet another trial. This despite a 200-page report from a government expert assigning Steven Wiseman a panoply of mental disorders, including pedophilia, hebephilia and antisocial personality disorder.