Back to All Press Release

Opponents Of Proposed Civil Commitment Law Issue Harsh Indictment Of Assembly And Senate Bills

At a news conference today in Albany, the New York Civil Liberties Union joined a diverse group of advocates — including advocates for sexual assault victims, mental health providers, and legal experts — to charge that a proposed civil commitment law is badly misguided, both as a matter of law and public policy.

Acting with extraordinary haste, the Senate and Assembly passed bills in January that authorize the civil commitment of persons who have already served a sentence for certain sex offenses. The bills have been referred to a joint Senate-Assembly conference committee.

A written statement signed by organizations represented at the news conference said that civil commitment of sex offenders is an unproven approach to preventing sex offenses that will divert resources from programs and strategies that have been proven effective in protecting the public against sexual assault crimes.

“The unfortunate irony here,” Dr. Richard Hamill said, “is that for a fraction of the extraordinary costs required to finance a civil commitment law we could provide greater protections of the public safety by employing proven sex-offender management strategies.” Dr. Hamill estimates the cost of committing an individual for a year in a New York State psychiatric facility may well reach $250,000 – this figure does not include the state’s legal costs related to civil commitment proceedings.

“New York State has a wealth of knowledgeable, dedicated professionals who work on a daily basis with children and adults affected by sexual assault and with those who have committed sex offenses,” said Anne Liske, Executive Director, NYS Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “As we work to create safe communities, let us use their collective wisdom to build on the foundations we have for effective, lasting solutions, rather than reactive, expensive quick fixes that look tough, but over time drain our resources.”

The debate in Albany over the civil commitment legislation has been driven by several notorious and widely reported sex crimes. In the conference committee deliberations, legislators have referred to the criminal defendants in these cases as “sexual predators” who are the “worst of the worst.”

However, the organizations represented at today’s news conference said the legislation defines “sexual predators” in a manner that is imprecise and overly broad – so broad that sex involving a 21-year-old and his 16-year-old girlfriend, as well as non-contact crimes such as possession of child pornography and video voyeurism could subject a person to a civil commitment petition. The Senate bill would make youthful offenders subject to a civil commitment proceeding.

“These bills are radically overbroad and the debate surrounding them is partisan, polarized, and political. Civil commitment represents an appallingly bad idea that threatens an enormous diversion of state funds while undermining more successful proven techniques to protect public safety,” said Jonathan Gradess, Executive Director of the New York State Defenders Association.

Robert A. Perry, Legislative Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said “The proposed civil commitment law has the same flaws as New York’s notoriously unjust drug sentencing laws: a poorly defined criminal predicate and an extraordinary grant of discretion to prosecutors. The authority for abuse is great; the protections of public safety are illusory.”

Mental health advocates who participated in the news conference voiced serious concerns that civil commitment legislation would sap resources from mental health programs and services funded through the state Office of Mental Health. They also objected strongly to the “sexual predator” definition, which they said is based on erroneous and stigmatizing notions of mental illness. The legislation authorizes prosecutors to bring a civil commitment petition against a person with a “mental abnormality” – a term not recognized within the medical and psychiatric communities – that makes an individual more “likely” to commit a sex offense in the future.

Michael Seereiter, Director of Policy with the Mental Health Association in New York State, said “the debate over civil commitment of sexual offenders has promoted the fundamental misconception that all individuals with mental illness are sexually dangerous. Mental health advocates contend that the proposed legislation would not only lead to wrongful civil commitment prosecutions – it would set back by decades the movement to de-stigmatize mental illness.”

The coalition includes the Mental Health Association in New York State, the New York State Alliance of Sex Offender Service Providers, the New York State Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the New York State Defenders Association, Prison Families of New York, and the Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York.

Click here to read the coalition’s signed statement.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
© 2024 New York
Civil Liberties Union