The US Supreme Court has ruled for the first time ever that
states may incarcerate sexual offenders without giving them a
The controversial decision is an attempt to reconcile a growing
public demand for safety with the time-honored practice of due
process and personal liberty.
It comes at a time when the number of sexual offenses in the
United States seems to be on the rise.
The high court's 5-to-4 decision upheld a Kansas "sexual
predator" law that allows the state to incarcerate sexual offenders
deemed both "dangerous" and "mentally abnormal" - persons such as
pedophiles who are regarded as a threat to repeat a sexual crime.
The ruling, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, also gives
states greater latitude in deciding what constitutes mental
illness. Critics worry the decision will open the door to
incarcerating a wide variety of persons deemed "mentally abnormal."
The Kansas case involved a former convict named Leroy Hendricks
who was imprisoned five times for offenses against 10 children.
Predators Can Be Held After Prison Term
Kansas could have put Mr. Hendricks away for life in 1984, after
he molested two 13-year-old boys, using a habitual-offenders law
that is already on the books. Instead, and somewhat inexplicably,
the prosecutor chose to plea bargain with him.
Hendricks' sentence ended in 1994, just as the new law kicked
in. Under the law, Hendricks, who has boasted that his death is the
only guarantee he won't molest again, was detained at a
mental-health facility, diagnosed as "mentally abnormal."
Hendricks filed suit, saying his imprisonment was a case of
"double jeopardy," or being punished twice for the same crime, a
violation of the Constitution. He lost in lower court. But the
Kansas Supreme Court reversed, ruling the act violated Hendricks'
due process - since the US Supreme Court demands a diagnosis of
"mentally ill" to be detained, and a psychologist said Hendricks
was not ill.
Defining mental illness
Yet Yesterday's high court opinion gives greater leeway to
states in defining mental illness, going so far as to say they do
not necessarily need to heed the opinion of doctors, psychiatrists,
and other health-care professionals.
"...States have in certain narrow circumstances provided for the
forcible civil detainment of people who are unable to control their
behavior and who thereby pose a danger to the public health and
safety," Justice Thomas wrote, adding that "contrary to Hendricks'
assertion, the term 'mental illness' is devoid of any talismanic