Two years ago New York enacted the Sex Offender Management and Treatment Act, which lets a jury release a civilly-committed sex offender from confinement if the state fails to provide sufficient evidence of a mental abnormality. Sex offenders who are released by a jury are placed under “civil management,” which requires “strict and intensive supervision.” Since the law took effect, 65 offenders have been placed under civil management. Of those, 29 have violated the conditions of their release; 10 were charged with sex-related offenses or violations, 5 of which involved no physical contact (e.g., possession of pornography).
Recent incidents involving two sex offenders under civil management have resulted in calls to re-evaluate the provision of the law that allows a jury to release offenders from civil confinement. The first sex offender released by a jury, Douglas Junco, was arrested in 2008 and charged with kidnapping and raping a woman in Georgia. Another offender, Ken-Tweal Catts, was released from civil confinement by a jury in September 2008. He was arrested for rape on May 27, 2009, but snatched a pistol from a Dutchess County detective, shot the detective in the head and then fatally shot himself following a three-hour standoff. The detective was only grazed by the bullet and survived.
These incidents caused New York politicians to question whether a jury should have the ability to decide whether to release an offender from civil confinement. “The question is: what does the jury really know?” said Assemblyman Joel Miller. “Judges normally do that and it’s only when we play this game and people claim mental illness that we fool the jury. This isn’t supposed to be a game. People with competence should make the decisions, not turn it over to lay people.”
What Miller’s confusing statement appears to say is that it is just fine for juries to listen to expert testimony in criminal cases and then make decisions about a defendant’s guilt or innocence, which can result in up to a life sentence. It’s also OK for a jury to hear evidence to determine whether sex offenders should be civilly committed in the first place. But when a jury verdict could lead to the release of a civilly-confined sex offender, then only “experts” should make that decision. This is intellectually dishonest at best and deliberately undermines the basic right to a jury trial at worst.
Other lawmakers have been more honest about their goals: they don’t want civilly committed sex offenders released. Ever. Period. “There is no hole dark or deep enough for these sick and twisted predators,” said Assemblyman Greg Ball, who wants the most serious offenders confined for the rest of their lives.
“The reason we passed the civil confinement law is because there are some people you need to keep in confinement,” observed state Senator Dale Volker.
Consider that the reason we have a jury system in the United States is to prevent the historically-common abuse of the government’s power to incarcerate its citizens. If the government alone decides when it will impose civil confinement, and government experts determine when a civilly committed offender can be released, then where are the checks and balances in that system? Clearly, the role of a jury in release decisions is a necessary component of a fair and balanced civil commitment process.
It is doubtful, however, that New York politicians will see it that way.
Sources: Associated Press, www.newsday.com
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