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Civil Commitment Roasted on ABC's Nightline

By Dan Pens

I had gotten word through the grape vine that Nightline was going to do a show on the Washington civil commitment law. So I stayed up several nights in a row to check it out. The plight of the Kurdish refugees seemed to be the dominant story all week long. Then, on Friday night, April 26th, the roving spotlight of Nightline focused its beam on Washington's civil commitment (witch trial) proceedings.

The first ten minutes of the show was a filmed background report. It was a fairly typical TV news report... long on visual images and soundbites, short on fact or substance. There were clips of the victim's lobby talking about the need to lock up the sex-fiend monsters. They showed footage of one such miserable creature being dragged away from his civil commitment "trial." Governor Gardner was shown signing the law arid proselytizing about the need to protect innocent victims. The TV reporter did his commentary while standing in front of a fence bristling with razor-wire. What news story about prison would be complete without the bristling razor-wire shot? In short, the background report was about what you'd expect from the bourgeois media.

After the commercial break Forrest Sawyer introduced the live guests for the debate portion of the program. He had three guests: King County's District Attorney, Norm Maleng; A law professor; and a clinical psychiatrist, both from Washington state. At first it appeared that Mr. Maleng was going to win the day. He was the smoothest talker, and seemed to have his lines down pretty good. Forrest Sawyer of ABC apparently did his homework, though. He and the two other guests brought up the most salient points of the law, which are summarized as follows:

1.) The Civil Commitment law waits until after an offender has fully completed his prison term, and then, when he's about to be released he suddenly needs "treatment."

2.) The terms "sexual predator;' "personality disorder;" and "mental abnormality" which are used in the law to define persons eligible for indefinite confinement are vague, ambiguous, and have virtually no valid legal or clinical meaning whatsoever.

3.) Current civil commitment laws require the state to show proof of recent dangerous behavior on the part of the person who is being committed.  The sexual predator law only requires the state to prove the person may be "likely" to be dangerous in the future.

4.) It's absolutely impossible to predict whether an individual is going to reoffend. Period. The Washington Psychiatric Association and the American Psychiatric Association have both asserted that it's beyond their scientific capability to make such a determination. How, then, can a jury of twelve lay-persons make such a determination?

5.) Under the current climate of public hysteria about crime, and sex-crimes in particular, its ridiculous to assume that a jury could make a reasonable or informed decision at a evil commitment hearing. It's almost inconceivable that a jury would take the responsibility of determining a 'sex-offender to be not dangerous. It's highly probable that any jury would assume that if the state thinks the man is dangerous enough to bring to the hearing, then he must be a "sexual predator."

6.) The civil commitment law is paralyzing the voluntary sex-offender treatment programs offered in the prison. Inmates are informed that anything they say to their therapist can later be used against them in a civil commitment hearing. (See "Sex Offender 'Treatment' in Washington State;' PLN, March 1991) This has the effect of clamming-up the inmates and severely undermining the treatment process.

Forrest Sawyer put the burner under Mr. Maleng, repeatedly badgering him and cutting off his answers. By the end of the show Mr. Maleng, and his evil commitment law, were pretty well roasted. The last word was left to the clinical psychiatrist. Mr. Sawyer asked him, "... if this law has any redeeming value whatsoever?" The doctor responded, "Uhh.. well, in a word, no."

It appears the civil commitment law may be overturned by the courts on Constitutional grounds. The ACLU wrote a superb amicus brief which exposes the law for the farce it is. Prisoners need to continue their efforts to organize and get the word out, though. The possibility remains: this type of preventative detention - if it works for sex offenders - might soon be expanded to include other types of violent crimes, too.

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