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Seventh Circuit Slams Illinois Civil Commitment Program but Reverses Injunction

“Very weighty interests are at stake when a state institutes a program of civil commitment for sex offenders who, though never tried for or convicted of a crime, are found too dangerous for release.” So began a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on July 24, 2023, in a challenge to a lower court’s order mandating improvements in Illinois’ civil commitment program, operated under the state’s Sexually Dangerous Persons (SDP) Act. Unfortunately, those interests were not deemed weighty enough to convince the Court to uphold the lower court’s injunction.

James Howe, George Needs and Jacob Kallal were civilly committed and held at Illinois’ Big Muddy River Correctional Center in its four-phase SDP Program. They filed suit alleging the program “was being run in a constitutionally deficient manner” by Wexford Health Services, a for-profit company with a lengthy track record of inadequate medical care that holds the contract to provide healthcare for the state Department of Corrections (DOC).

Despite having a financial incentive in keeping the SDP program full, Wexford employees make release recommendations, relying heavily on prisoners’ past conduct. Plaintiffs’ expert witness, Dr. Dean Cauley, noted that Wexford had just three therapists for 170 detainees in Big Muddy’s SDP program. Group therapy was provided just one day a week for one hour, and some groups, including Victim Empathy and Substance Abuse, had been “indefinitely canceled.” Cauley noted this was contrary to practices at other civil commitment facilities, which provide substantially more therapy time. Following a bench trial in 2018, the federal court for the Southern District of Illinois granted injunctive relief in September 2021, finding the paltry amount of therapy constituted a constitutional violation.

The permanent injunction included requirements that civilly committed detainees receive at least 7.5 hours of core group therapy per week, with each session lasting at least 90 minutes. Further, discontinued groups must be reinstated and “independent evaluators other than Wexford [employees]” must conduct discharge evaluations. The state argued in response that the injunction was overbroad, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(l)(A).

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit wrote that as with criminal defendants, people facing civil commitment are entitled to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. Unlike criminal sentences, civilly-committed detainees have no setrelease date; their detention is indefinite. The Supreme Court of the U.S. (SCOTUS) gave its blessing to civilly detaining people with mental illness and considered a threat in Addington v. Texas, 441 U.S. 418 (1979). SCOTUS extended that to sex offenders, so long as they were placed in civil commitment programs providing treatment and not punitive in nature. See: Kansas v. Hendricks, 521 U.S. 346 (1997).

The relevant section of the statute in question restricts injunctions “in any civil action with respect to prison conditions,” but the Seventh Circuit said it applied even though civilly committed detainees are no longer “prisoners.” The SDP program is located in a prison, the Court noted, and the statute requires that injunctive relief ‘“extend no further than necessary to correct the violation” and be “narrowly drawn.”

Here, the Court found the injunction was overbroad because it exceeded minimal constitutional requirements; even Dr. Cauley testified that five hours of core therapy per week was adequate rather than the 7.5 hours required by the district court. The other provisions of the injunction were too prescriptive, the Court added, robbing the state of flexibility without sufficient evidence to single out and restrict Wexford from providing treatment-related services.

Nevertheless, the Seventh Circuit also warned that if “Illinois continues to operate the Big Muddy [SDP] program in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, it may expose itself to far more drastic and costly measures than those it has so far avoided in this case.”

“The state should right these constitutional wrongs without delay,” the Court added, vacating the injunction and remanding the case. See: Howe v. Hughes, 74 F.4th 849 (7th 2023).

The case has now returned to the district court, and PLN will update developments as they are available. Plaintiffs are represented by attorneys with Stobbs Law Offices and Simmons Hanly Conroy, both in Alton. See: Howe v. Godinez, USDC (S.D. Ill.), Case No. 3:14-cv-00844.  

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Related legal case

Howe v. Hughes