Supreme Court okays indefinite prison for sex offenders

Here’s a law school hypothetical:  A person is convicted at trial of the offense of extortion.  He receives a sentence of 10 years.  Prior to his release from prison, however, the government decides he might very well commit another, similar offense if he is released from his sentence; so the government motions the court to have him detained in prison.  At a hearing on the motion, the government shows — by a lesser burden than “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” (the burden they must have met in order to have had him incarcerated in the first place), that he might very well commit another offense after his release.  So, the court orders him held beyond the end of his original sentence, and perhaps indefinitely, because he might similarly harm victims if he is released.  The law student would be required to respond to this hypothetical, with an analysis of whether such indefinite incarceration beyond a term of imprisonment for an offense passes constitutional muster.

The hypothetical would be an easy one to correctly answer.  Clearly, such a move on the part of the government would be violative of more than one provision in the Bill of Rights.

In fact, this hypothetical is not a hypothetical at all.  The Supreme Court of the United States, in an opinion earlier this month, confronted just such a question; except in this case, it involved a real federal statute enacted in 2006.  The High Court found, by a 7-2 majority, that of a person who has already served their term of imprisonment can be detained for an indefinite time beyond that, simply because the government shows they might commit a similar offense after release.

The particular facts of the case before the Court were different from those of my hypothetical; but the principle is the same.  The Supremes were presented with a 2006 law that permits the US Attorney General to seek to have a federal inmate convicted of certain federal sex offenses held in prison indefinitely, if the government shows he might be inclined to commit other sex offenses.

The nature of certain sex offenses make those who commit them among the most despicable of people.  State governments have wide leeway in dealing with such offenders, but the federal government does not.  Neither the Congress nor the president possess express or implied power under the Constitution to incarcerate people simply to “protect the public,” much as people might want it to do.  This was the thrust of Justice Clarence Thomas’ dissent in this latest case (in which he was joined by Justice Scalia).

Permitting the federal government to act as a national nanny and detain people without any legitimate authority to do so under the Constitution, even those who have commited despicable crimes, is offensive to the basic underpinnings of our system of federalism and limited federal government powers.  That a majority on the Supreme Court is willing to jettison those principles is deeply disturbing.

117 comments Add your comment

Moses Waddell

May 30th, 2010
9:01 am

Enter your comments here

whatever

May 30th, 2010
2:03 pm

Sorry, Karen, but you are wrong. The rights of protection should be extended to everyone, regardless how you “feel” about a certain crime. A person can murder a couple of people – but still get out after a few years – does that mean that person should have NOT RIGHTS once they have completed their sentence? Remember, the great thing about America is that we protect the freedoms of those we even find repulsive. I disagree strongly with people who worship satan or who study Wicca – but I will fight for their right to practice it. Do you think that a corp CEO who, because of fraud, lying, cooking the books, etc, completely destroys a company of say 30,000 employees – where those employees lose everything they ever had, including jobs, pensions, investments, etc – are not effected as much as someone who “victimized” one person or robbed a bank?? But yet, the CEO – who destroyed so many lives and the other collateral damage that comes along with it (suppliers, local economies, real estate – b/c the people can no longer afford their homes, etc) WALKS with millions?? It’s too bad that people like you, Karen, can’t see beyond yourselves sometimes.
What if you, Karen, were convicted of molesting the boy next door – but YOU know you didn’t do it – but you were found guilty anyway – yes, it happens much more than you think. How would you feel to know that your life, at that point is OVER. You can never live or work in certain areas again. You have to register of the rest of your life (even after you have served your time) – how do you think the new neighbors (b/c you would have had to move) will feel when they read on-line that they have a sex offender living in their hood?? I am not talking from experience with myself – but I do have a friend that that has happened to – and I know he is innocent – but convicted anyway. His life will NEVER be the same.

Mike Mahoney

May 30th, 2010
3:17 pm

Sex offenders should be castrated and permanently incarcerated. This would cleans the streets of some Census workers and many Democrat activists. This would be a good thing for America.

neo-Carlinist

May 30th, 2010
4:36 pm

whatever, let me guess, you’re a Christian. a crime is a crime. are you suggesting “worshipping satan or wicca” is the spiritually or theological equivalent of a “crime” because you “worship” Christ? if your hypothetical scenario is possible (Karen could be wrongly convicted of a crime she did not commit) there are no rights to protect. as I noted on Friday, American judicial history is full of DNA evidence “acquitting” convicted rapists 15 or 20 years in their sentences. if our “system” is imperfect, it is imperfect on both sides, we need to “perfect” it, as opposed to selectively and unilaterally deciding when a person needs to just “deal” with the imperfection, and when we should seek justice.

Nikita

May 30th, 2010
10:28 pm

*Contrary to most people’s beliefs, a brief review of web-sourced research documenting sex offender recidivism rates, showed a rate not unlike that of other crimes. Why do s0 many believe that everyone except sex offenders have constitutional rights?*

Because sex offenders are a convenient bogeyman.

I was attacked by a guy who’s still on the sex offender registry. He has committed sexual battery or other forms of minor sex crimes against at least 30 women. His current charge is for statuatory rape. He probably should remain under close supervision for the entirety of his life, but he has yet to commit the specific sexually-related crimes that get one locked up permanently. So, I find it of concern that the Supreme Court is defending, more or less, the right to indefinitely detain people based on how shocking their crimes are — I doubt that measure will correspond with how dangerous those people really are.

To some comments made earlier, I suspect that you guys don’t realize how constrained a sex offender is. A mapping project published a few years ago made it clear that in Georgia its virtually impossible for a sex offender to live near any populated area — there simply are too many children and too many restricted places. I personally dislike the rhetoric regarding punishing sex offenders in this way based on my experience as noted above — 1. not all sex offenders pose a threat to children, and 2. these restrictions increase the likelihood of an offender going off the grid. And I like to know where the guy who attacked me is.

hryder

May 30th, 2010
11:26 pm

Many extremely intelligent people have stated that the law is often an ass.

interested observer

May 31st, 2010
6:42 am

Bob is right. No matter how insidious the crime, when the suspect has served the sentence he should be released.

If there is reason to think a criminal will repeat the offense, that should be taken into consideration at the time of sentencing or at the time the sentence limits are established by law. There is no legal grounds to hold someone whose sentence has been completed. To hold someone after the sentence is completed is unconstitutional. Period.

Katie

May 31st, 2010
9:25 am

It’s interesting that the outraged here are men! What are you hiding!

ATF

May 31st, 2010
9:40 am

Down right scary to think the government will decide to keep someone in prison because he “might” commit the same crime again. Does this start with terrorists and sex-offenders and then become so “normal” that it gets applied to other types of crimes?

There are no guarantees of safety in this life.

Neo-Carlinist

May 31st, 2010
11:42 pm

Forgive me but according to the CIA Valerie Plame was never an undercover agent of the CIA. Therefore saying she worked for the CIA is no different than anyone ever having said Hoover is an FBI agent. No cover to be blown. And if you will remember the trial under immunity a reporter claimed he was the first to mention Plame’s CIA connection not Libby. Libby went to jail because of “Pergury” for not remembering the exact details of 2 and 3 year old conversations. Something I fear we could all go to jail for, seeing as how I for one sometimes can’t remember what I had for breakfast.

Michael

May 31st, 2010
11:44 pm

Previous post is mine to Neo-Carlinist, not from him.

Jedidiah Bird

June 1st, 2010
2:24 am

neo-Carlinist

May 28th, 2010
9:13 am

Really, and how about your “right” to smoke pot? In some states, if you raise your hand and ask politely (prescription from a M.D.), you have the right to smoke pot, but in others, the Government has the right to just say “no”. you are an example that we all have the freedom to smoke weed, but the government has the right to criminalize this “freedom”. Re: pedophiles – they prey on minors, who actually have no rights, so the government assumes the “right” to protect them and ensure their “best interests” are served; what about two consenting adults who wish to get married? In some states same sex couples can marry, but in other states they cannot. In some states, the “state” recognizes a “civil union” (bestowing the same rights as heterosexual civil unions), but does not refer to the union as a “marriage”. and for all the Constitutional purists, is marriage or sexuality even mentioned in the Constitution? If a Christian, Jew, Muslim or Wiccan wants to get “married” it is between the couple and whatever god – or rock they worship. But where in the Constitution does the government assume the authority (right) to endorse some relationship, but not others? Again, 14th amendment comes to mind. The government has no more right or authority to make a white supremicist “like” Mexicans, Negroes and Asians, than it does the power to force homosexual men to “like” women, or lesbians to favor heterosexual men.

————————————-

Okay, well here is the thing. The government does not have a right to force me into a relationship, yet if gays get the “rights” of married couples, and married couples get the same “rights” then a single individual who chooses to have multiple relationship (Or none at all, if that’s your thing) should also be granted those rights. Why do married couples get preference over single people? If they give gay couples the same rights and protection as straight couples, then they also need to extend it to singles, regardless of sexual preference. Imagine that, all men being created equal, whether you choose to get married, screw a man, woman, or goat. Whatever you choose for your sexual life, you should be treated the same.

Jedidiah Bird

June 1st, 2010
2:32 am

Katie

May 31st, 2010
9:25 am

It’s interesting that the outraged here are men! What are you hiding!

——————————-

It’s interesting that you are making an asinine statement. The outraged people are those who feel that law should be upheld. Yes, those of us who also stood up for the civil rights of minorities and of women like yourself. Without law there can be no freedom.

neo-Carlinist

June 1st, 2010
6:28 am

Michael, nobody knows what Valerie Plame did for the CIA, but it doesn’t take Tom Clancy to figure out that a “CIA employee” who worked in Africa was probably either an agent or recruiting agents (foreign nationals). Ask are host. He worked for the folks in Langley. my point is/was; Bush & Co tried to sell Americans on the war on terror and the notion that the intelligence is key (why would they profer the Patriot Act, warrantly wiretaps, Gitmo, etc.) then they turned around an burned the cover of a CIA employee working overseas. Seems they were guild to “treason”, were they not? Plame was likley never in danger, but a key role for “CIA employees” overseas is to recruit and “run” a network of non-Americans (that where the agency gets its intelligence/data). “outting” Plame put the lives of those who associated with her (non-Americans) at risk, and at the very least, likely caused the termination of whatever “operations” she may or may not have been running. And all because her husband had the audacity to write an editorila for the WashPo or NYTimes?

neo-Carlinist

June 1st, 2010
6:51 am

Jeddidiah Bird, I am not sure I understand your post. The government does not “force” us into relationships. The government endorses or OKs some, but denies others the “right” to the same realtionship (see: 14th Amendment – “equal protection”). As the law exist now, there are different “rights” – and more importantly, the benefits (access to health insurance, tax benefits, power of attorney, custody of children, etc.). I believe the government should get out of the “marriage” business (leave this to religions/faiths) and any domestic partnership consisting of two consenting adults (I don’t know that “goats” can consent, and I don’t know that animals are covered by the Constitution). these partnerships could be called “civil unions” or “domestic partnerships” and ALL Americans would be entitled to enter into on, or not. it’s like saying gay people should have a “automobile operators permit” but heterosexuals need a “driver’s license”. if the benefits were the same, I would say, let the straight folks have the word marriage and the gay folks can make up a word of their own. but the problem is, in most cases, heterosexuals a homsexuals are treated differently… under the law. the “right” to marry has a great bearing on probate court issues/wills, child custody, division of assets/property, alimony, insurance death benefits, etc. this is the issue, and there are cases in which un-married heterosexual couples are denied the same. it’s not a gay/straight issue, or a “married/single” issue, it is a 14th Amendment issue. you obviously have never been inside a family courtroom or been a party in a (heterosexual) divorce or child custody hearing/trial. “ALL men (amd women)” do not enjoy the same rights.

Willis

June 1st, 2010
6:53 am

This country is sex-crazed. Why not just outlaw all sexual acts and be done with it.

Amy in the ATL

June 1st, 2010
8:26 am

Being a mom with two young daughters, I personally support allowing the government to keep a dangerous sexual predator behind bars for life.

However, I think this is a question of process. IF we as a society believe that certain types of crimes should mean a lifetime behind bars without chance of parole, then that should be the sentence handed down in court, not something decided after the fact.

Also, we really need to take a scalpel to the definition of sex crime. A 24 year old who molests an 8 year old has committed a sex crime. A man who violently assaults a woman at knifepoint has committed a sex crime. But an 18 year old who sleeps with his 16 year old girlfriend shouldn’t be put in that same category, and laws banning homosexuality or oral sex shuold be stricken from the books. Tracking sex offenders becomes fairly meaningless when you throw the Genarlow Wilson’s in with the John Mark Karrs of the world.