Editorials

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Pedophile ruling draws fine line

When a convicted pedophile says he's almost certain to assault children again if given the chance, then there's a pretty strong incentive to keep the man away from kids.

But how can authorities confine someone - even someone who knows and admits his own proclivities - once he's served his prison term? After all, a constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy is a key underpinning of the justice system.

Kansas and five other states have laws that let officials keep a child sex offender in a mental hospital after his prison release if he has a "mental abnormality" and is likely to engage in "predatory acts of sexual violence" if freed. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Kansas law. That paves the way for Illinois and other states to go ahead with similar laws.

The Kansas law was challenged by Leroy Hendricks, who has a long record of molesting children. Hendricks said he would strike again if released but nonetheless challenged the law on the grounds that his hospitalization amounted to a second punishment for one crime.

If, in fact, that's what hospitalization is, then we would agree that such confinement tramples constitutional rights. But the court majority is satisfied that the Kansas law is written in such a way that it applies only to inmates who truly are mentally ill, who still suffer from a disorder that compels them to molest children.

In addition, Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, makes the persuasive point that it is neither unusual nor unconstitutional for mentally ill persons, in the absence of any crime, to be confined to a hospital if they're deemed a danger to themselves or to others. That helps put the Kansas law in perspective and make it more palatable for those who highly value civil liberties.

Still, it's important, in cases like Hendricks', that the inmate-turned-patient receive treatment for the disorder and that his case be reviewed frequently to determine whether he's fit to be released.

Nobody wants to see a human time bomb put out on the street, one whose detonation would mean serious harm to innocent children. …