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Civil Commitment Legislation Jeopardizes Due Process And Fairness, NYCLU Charges

The New York Civil Liberties Union today condemned a bill passed by the New York State Legislature authorizing the state to re-incarcerate individuals who have already served sentences for sex offenses.

The NYCLU charged that the bill is critically flawed both as a matter of law and as a matter of public policy.

“Sex offenses are a serious public safety issue, but the political compromise that led to this legislation — a deal struck, as usual, by three men in a room in Albany — is not a serious response to the problem,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “Its sponsors assert that the bill will confine ‘the most dangerous’ offenders, but in fact it could subject to a civil commitment proceeding a person whose offenses include crimes not generally understood to be sex offenses, such as arson, robbery and minor assault.”

The NYCLU also charged that the legislation is based on erroneous notions of mental disability. The legislation defines a “sex offender requiring civil commitment” as a person with a “mental abnormality.” However, not all persons who commit sex crimes have psychiatric disabilities. This confusion would not only lead to a flawed approach to preventing sex crimes, the NYCLU argues, but would embrace as a matter of public policy the mistaken idea that individuals with psychiatric disabilities are sexually dangerous.

The NYCLU also questioned the adequacy of legal representation for persons subject to civil commitment proceedings. Such proceedings will involve inquiries into questions of mental abnormality and propensity to re-offend in the future. The NYCLU contends that the legislation does not address sufficiently the need for assigned counsel who are competent to handle such complex issues.

The legislation, which the governor is expected to sign into law, will require a huge allocation of resources. It is estimated that civil commitment of sex offenders — which involves psychiatric treatment — will cost approximately $250,000 per person annually. The NYCLU and other opponents of the legislation claim that the cost of implementing the legislation will divert nearly all of the resources available to address sex crimes to long-term commitment of individuals who represent about 2 percent of the offender population and who may not even benefit from treatment.

“It has become increasingly clear from the experience in other jurisdictions that civil commitment is a failed model for preventing sex crimes,” said Robert Perry, NYCLU Legislative Director. “In passing the civil commitment bill the legislature has reinvented a broken wheel.”

The NYCLU was a signatory to a joint statement issued last year by a number of advocacy organizations that oppose civil commitment legislation. The statement is available at www.nyclu.org/civil_commitment_stmnt_030606.html. The NYCLU also recently issued a report that found gross racial disparities in the state’s designation of Level 3 sex offenders. The report is available on the NYCLU’s website in PDF form at www.nyclu.org/pdfs/sexoffender_analysis_121106.pdf.

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