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Civil Commitment of Massachusetts Sex Offenders Expanding

by Michael Rigby

Massachusetts prosecutors are using recent changes in state law to expand the number of sex offenders imprisoned through civil commitment, and it's costing taxpayers millions.

In 2004 and 2005, the Massachusetts legislature and Governor Mitt Romney greatly expanded the pool of sex offenders who could be committed to the state Treatment Center in Bridgewater. The old law was much narrower, focusing mainly on sex offenders who assaulted children. The new law includes such crimes as propositioning a minor, possession of child pornography, and open and gross lewdness and lascivious behavior.
As a consequence, the number of petitions filed to commit sex offenders after their release from prison has risen sharply, from 75 in 2003 to 124 in 2004. In October 2005, 157 petitions were pending statewide, said Superior Court officials.

Under the law, individuals are committed if prosecutors can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he or she is likely to commit another sex crime due to a mental abnormality or personality disorder.

Committed sex offenders are entitled to have a judge review their cases annually to decide if they still pose a threat warranting continued confinement. Even so, release is unlikely. Since the law was enacted in 1999, not one person has been freed, according to the state's public defender agency, the Committee for Public Counsel Services.

The new law also provides for the commitment of convicted sex offenders even if they are not currently serving time for a sex offense.

From July 2003 through June 2004, 811 eligible sex offenders were referred to the district attorney's office. (Prison officials are required to notify the district attorney 6 months before a convicted sex offender is to be released.) Of those, prosecutors filed 77 commitment petitions, resulting in the commitment of 13 sex offenders, or 17%. During the same period the following year, prison officials referred 1,198 prisoners, resulting in 108 petitions and 21 commitments, or roughly 19%.

The flood of cases is clogging courts and wasting taxpayer money. Because most convicted sex offenders can't pay for their own defense, the state spends millions on court-appointed attorneys and mental health experts. In fact, the state public defender agency recently created a separate division consisting of 4 lawyers who do nothing but defend sex offenders facing civil commitment. The cost: $342,000 per year. In 2005 the state spent another $541,000 for expert testimony.

What's more, civil commitment trials sometimes take longer--and cost more--than murder trials because they rely on complex testimony from dueling psychologists and psychiatrists and also because the stakes are so high. Sex offenders face commitment at the Treatment Center for one day to life.

Critics of the increased commitments have argued that prosecutors label all sex offenders as dangerous to avoid any potential political backlash should one of them commit a high-profile crime. As evidence, critics point to the fact that since 1999 judges have declined to pursue 80% of prosecutors' civil commitment petitions.

Either they're doing it to impress their constituencies, or they're doing it out of fear of retaliation from their own constituencies if they don't do it," said John Swomley, a private Boston attorney who represents sex offenders referred to him by the state public defender agency. Consequently, Swomely contends, many of the petitions are baseless. But hey, the money is not coming out of prosecutors' pockets.

Source: The Boston Globe

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