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Florida Courts Criticize Indefinite Detention While Awaiting Civil Commitment Trials

Florida sex offenders who have completed their prison sentences may face a legal morass that leaves them stuck in indefinite detention while awaiting trial on whether they should be civilly committed. During such pre-trial detention they receive little to no treatment, and thus cannot earn their release by completing the civil commitment program.

The problem stems from the Jimmy Ryce Act, which established the civil commitment process and created the Florida Civil Commitment Center (FCCC) in rural Arcadia. Civilly committed sex offenders and those awaiting commitment trials are detained at FCCC.

The law allows the state to file a civil commitment petition before a sex offender’s sentence expires. If a petition is filed, instead of being released the sex offender is transferred to FCCC to await a civil commitment trial, which must take place in the jurisdiction where the offense occurred. While the law requires a trial within 30 days, court-appointed defense attorneys often waive the time limit because it takes more time to find experts to testify on their clients’ behalf.

“Once the right to the thirty-day trial is waived, however, these proceedings often seem to take many years,” stated Florida’s 2nd District Court of Appeals, which examined the delays in a case involving a man who was held at FCCC for eight years without a civil commitment trial. “The fact that the detainee is being held sometimes hundreds of miles from the trial forum does not facilitate timely resolution of these cases,” the appellate court added.

Ronald Morel, who had been held at FCCC since 2002, filed suit over the lengthy delay in his civil commitment proceedings. It was revealed that his case had been accidentally closed by a court clerk in 2005 and the mistake wasn’t discovered for three years.
According to the state bar, his attorney had a history of misplaced files and neglect in civil commitment cases. See: In re Commitment of Morel, 2010 WL 4861507 (Fla.App. 2 Dist. 2010).

However, determining that it lacked jurisdiction, the Court of Appeals referred the case to Florida’s Supreme Court, which issued a ruling on January 21, 2011. The state Supreme Court held that “these matters (i.e., the failure to receive treatment as a pretrial detainee and the failure to have held a civil commitment hearing for eight years) are interrelated and present serious questions as to the functioning of our system for civil commitments and the legality of Morel’s continued detention.”

The Court remanded the case for a hearing before the trial court as to “the issues relating to Morel’s pretrial detention,” specifying a strict 60-day deadline in which to hold the hearing. See: Morel v. Sheldon, 59 So.3d 1082 (Fla. 2011).

Kristin Kanner, an assistant state attorney who handles commitments in Broward County, put the blame on the victim. She said Morel could have self-committed instead of insisting on a trial. She believes he refused self-commitment because he didn’t want to take a polygraph test, which is part of the treatment – possibly because he didn’t want to discuss a murder case in which he is a suspect.

Whatever the circumstances, Morel’s situation is hardly unique according to the Court of Appeals. The current practice of lengthy civil commitment delays satisfies only one entity: GEO Care, a subsidiary of GEO Group, the nation’s second-largest private prison firm. GEO Care collects $25 million each year from the state to operate FCCC, which it has done with a mixed track record. [See: PLN, Sept. 2008, p.16; Sept. 2007, p.20].

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Related legal case

Morel v. Sheldon