In a recent decision, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that government officials may keep convicted sexual offenders in jail after they have served their sentences for an indefinite period of time if they believe that these convicts may pose a threat to people upon their release. Currently more than twenty states in the United States have local laws providing for indefinite detainment of sexual offenders till they are no longer deemed to be dangerous to the community.
The Supreme Court ruling came about as a result of challenges to the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act signed into law in 2006. The act contains provisions for involuntary commitment of those deemed to be sexually dangerous individuals without them having committed any crime (Segura, 2010). In the following essay we shall attempt to illustrate why confining sexual offenders beyond their original sentences without them having committed any crimes or disclosed plans to commit any crimes is a miscarriage of justice.
Public Hysteria against Sexual Offenders
People who are believed to have committed sexual offences are one of the most vilified and demonized section of the society. People convicted of sexual offences are forced to register with the police and periodically visit the police station .after their release from prison. Government officials regulate where former sexual offenders can live and work, in some localities they are forced to wear electronic bracelets with GPS tracking devices, in others lawmakers are working on laws to force them to reveal their internet passwords to law enforcement officials so that their online activities can be tracked (Randall, 2007).
The media incites people's fears against strangers who may kidnap and assault their children, in a survey more than 2/3rd of parents reported being worried that their children would be abducted and molested by a stranger; however the truth is that most rapes and sexual molestation offenses are committed by people that are known to the victim. A vulnerable person is more likely to be sexually molested by someone they know rather than by some stranger (Shannon, 2007).
The Sort of People who are classified as Sexual Offenders
When we speak of sexual offenders, the image that comes to mind is that of brutal rapists and people who grope unprotected little children, while such offenders do constitute a percentage of the people classified as sexual offenders however there is a quite large range of offenses which may be classified as sexual offences (Gilbert, 2006).
What constitutes a sexual offense is not narrowly defined; sex offenders constitute people convicted of a whole range of offenses. Sexual offenders include people who have committed brutal sexual acts as well as those who have committed victimless crimes and relatively minor offense; a person convicted of brutal rape is a sex offender, so is a twenty-one year old convicted of having consensual sex with his 16 year old girlfriend, in some cases people who have been caught urinating on the side of a road have been classified as sexual offenders for having committed indecent exposure in public (Gilbert, 2006). Most people who have been convicted of sexual offences are those who have committed minor offences, people who have committed rape, torture, murder and other horrible crimes only constitute around 10% of the section of the people who have been termed sexual offenders (Shannon, 2007).
Disproportionate sentencing for offenses of a sexual nature is already quite common. Earlier this year, 34 year old Michelle Lyn Taylor of Twin Falls, Elko County, Nevada was sentenced to life in prison for forcing a thirteen year old boy to touch her breasts while she was drunk (FAMM, 2010). In 2005, Genarlow Wilson of Douglas County, Georgia was sentenced to ten years in prison on the charge aggravated child molestation for having had consensual sex with a 15 year old girl at the age of 17. Wilson was released in 2007, having served more than 2 years of his 10 year sentence (CNN.com, 2007).
Keeping in view the ill-defined and broad range of offensive actions which are included under the heading of sexual offenses it becomes very dangerous to grant government officials the right to jail sexual offenders upon their whims. Granting government officials such a power is tantamount to allowing someone to be sentenced to life in prison for the crime of public urination.
The Logic behind the Supreme Court Judgment
Suppose that a person is very glib-tongued and persuasive and uses this ability to defraud other people of their hard earned money, they are caught and sentenced to six years in jail for the crime of larceny. However just before the sentence is about to be over, some government officials decide that if that person is released, they are likely to use their abilities to commit more crimes of the same nature, therefore they should be held indefinitely, perhaps till the end of their life.
Looking at this hypothetical scenario, it would not be difficult to come to the conclusion that such an action would be unjust and unfair. Currently, in every other type of criminal activity except that involving crimes of a sexual nature, the law requires concrete proof that the crime was committed or that there were plans in place for the crime to be committed (Hudson, 2003). In no other crime does the government allow people to be imprisoned merely on the off chance that they may commit a crime in the future. To allow such to allow such preemptive imprisonment opens the door for great abuses of governmental power, for example minor extensions of this principal would allow the government to persecute their political enemies, ban protest gatherings and arrest opposition leaders; it could be argued that all protest gatherings are potential armed rebellions and insurrectionary movements.
The Problem of Dangerous Offenders should be dealt with at the Time of Sentencing
If potentially dangerous sexual offenders run out their sentences with any appreciable reform of their characters, this does not speak well of the justice system. In case the people and the government fear the release of such people into the society, they should first strive to reform the legislation and the prison system which have failed to reform sexual offenders instead of instituting arbitrary laws which endanger the liberty of law abiding citizens as well as criminals (Zilney & Zilney, 2009)
Sociologists should come up with objective criteria to judge the danger to society posed by an offender and the amount of time a sexual offender is sentenced to prison should reflect their score against this criteria. Dangerous sexual offenders should undergo compulsory counseling and treatment in prison with a view toward reducing their dangerousness to society. Giving the government the power to arbitrarily lock up such people in order to protect the public from them is no solution to this problem.
Rule of Law versus Arbitrary Rule
Since ancient times, the idea of personal freedom and liberty has included the right to be subjected only the laws. Unlike slaves, free people are not subjected to arbitrary commands of higher ups (Constant, 1988). Allowing the government to lock people up beyond their original sentences removes the rule of law with an arbitrary form of government where people are subjected to the whims and fancies of government officials.
The constitutional provisions against double jeopardy exist so that a person would not be punished more than once for the same crime. In case of indefinitely holding convicted sex offenders, the convict has already served their punishment once; any extension of their detention without the occurrence of a second offence goes against the provisions of the double jeopardy in the constitution (McSherry & Keyzer, 2009).
Imprisonment and Punishment of the Mentally Ill
An unspoken assumption behind the arbitrary confinement of sexual offenders seems to be the belief that those classed as dangerous sexual offenders are devoid of all self control. In case this assumption is taken to be true, we will have to accept that these people are not in full control of their mental faculties. Once it is accepted that such people are of diminished mental capacity, there no longer remains any justification for giving such people lengthy prison sentences because being of diminished mental capacity they also have diminished responsibility and cannot be held to be responsible for the action that they commit. If the assumption is correct such people belong in mental hospitals rather than in prison.
A climate of hysteria and fear mongering has lead to the creation of irrational and unreasonable laws regarding sexual offenders. The laws allowing the government to hold sexual offenders indefinitely even after the expiration of their sentences are the result of this unjustified hysteria.