EDITOR'S INTRODUCTION: Sex Offender Civil Commitment Special Issue

Article excerpt

Eighteen years after the state of Washington passed their "Community Protection Act of 1990," what would become the first of many "next generation" sexually violent predator (SVP) civil commitment laws, 20 states and the District of Columbia now have statutes that permit them to civilly commit sexual offenders. This special issue of The Journal of Psychiatry & Law will present current information and review research that covers a continuum of mental health and legal subject matter relating to this controversial topic.

Although applauded by some groups, and often perceived as the panacea for "incapacitating" recidivistic sexual offenders with severe and violent sexual offense histories, sex offender civil commitment statutes are also highly divisive in several clinical and legal aspects. Civilly committed and detained sexual offenders, as well as some civil rights organizations, have been vocal about several aspects of sex offender civil commitment that they argue are unconstitutional, and the conditions of confinement and treatment of civilly committed sex offenders have been, and are being, challenged in several states.

The forensic criteria used to determine suitability for civil commitment, the treatment goals for civilly committed sex offenders (a group typically perceived by the public to be "incurable"), and determining when and how to release a sexual offender from civil commitment, often make civil commitment a confusing and contradictory prospect for mental health professionals tasked with evaluating these individuals for civil commitment and for those providing psychological treatment to them once in civil commitment facilities.

Although research relating to sex offender civil commitment is growing, there remains a dearth of investigation into several important aspects of this issue. This special issue will focus on five areas of the sex offender civil commitment field.

The first article by John Petrila, "Because they do horrible things: Fear, science, and the erosion of civil liberties in sexually violent predator proceedings," takes a critical look at the forensic similarities and differences between traditional civil commitment laws and more recent SVP laws. This article draws attention to the "remedicalization" of civil commitment laws, the associated expanded authority of state legislatures in segregating individuals for confinement, and legal decisions that have weakened a right to treatment standard for civilly committed sex offenders. A discussion of the limitations of expert testimony in SVP trials regarding future risk is also provided.

The second article by Rebecca Jackson, "Sex offender civil commitment: Recommendations for empirically guided evaluations," provides an excellent review of factors that forensic evaluators conducting sex offender civil commitment evaluations should consider in the course of their work. …