New Jersey and 15 other states hold preventive detention hearings for sex offenders, the New York Times says. Often, men who have finished their prison terms are involuntarily committed as psychiatric patients and, with a few exceptions, are recommitted each year. New Jersey confines 287 “sexually violent predators” in two high-security psychiatric centers. The detention of these men, many experts say, is a departure from the principle that people who are not mentally ill may be confined only for their acts, not their thoughts.
In yearly reviews, the men are judged by their sexual tastes and fantasies – or what psychiatrists suppose to be their fantasies – as well as their performance on psychological tests, their attitudes toward authority, and their willingness to acknowledge their crimes and disorders. In 1998 New Jersey, reacting to murders by sex offenders with previous convictions, authorized the commitment of anyone who has served time for a sex crime and is found to have a “mental abnormality or personality disorder” that makes him likely to commit another crime. Five years later, only a handful have been released, and critics of the process are concerned that it is merely an exercise rigged to keep sex offenders locked up for a lifetime. One Kearny, N.J., resident, committed after five years in prison for having sex with a teenager, said, “I’d be better off if I’d killed him.”
New Jersey’s law is considered one of the strictest, prompted in part by the 1994 rape and murder of a 7-year-old, Megan Kanka, by a neighbor who had served two prison terms for sexually assaulting children.
In a half-dozen recent New Jersey cases, the New York Times was allowed, with the patients’ permission, to attend hearings. Those proceedings, plus interviews with lawyers who represent sex offenders, some current and former state employees and more than a dozen patients – offer a glimpse into the workings of the Sexually Violent Predator Act.
Separately, a federal study concluded that sex offenders are less likely than are other criminals to be arrested after their release. The Associated Press says that a Justice Department study of 9,691 men convicted of rape, sexual assault, and child molestation who were released in 1994 found that 43 percent were arrested, for any type of crime, within three years, compared with 68 percent of all other former inmates.
Ryan King of Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project, suggested the difference might be because the most serious rapists, sexual assaulters, and child molesters are not released in the first place. “The corrections system is clearly being very cautious about who is being released from prison for sex offenses,” said King, whose organization promotes alternatives to prison.
Erica Schmitt, who coauthored the report, said research has shown that released sex offenders tend to be arrested less often than are those convicted of theft, robbery, stealing vehicles, or illegal-weapons trafficking. A small core of sex offenders often commits similar crimes over and over, she said. The study found that 5.3 percent of sex offenders were arrested for a sex crime after their release. Only 1.3 percent of all other criminals were arrested for a sex crime after serving a prison sentence.