Monday, January 12, 2009

Sex offenders: civil commitment and sentences

The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held last week that a federal law permitting indefinite commitment of federal prisoners deemed "sexually dangerous" after completion of their sentences is unconstitutional. The appeals court based its ruling not on the individual right to personal liberty and due process but on limits on Congress's enumerated powers (PDF). The court said that civil commitment is traditionally the province of the states, and that Congress's limited powers do not extend to general violent crime prevention. This case may well go to the Supreme Court and set a new precedent regarding the scope of federal government authority. If the law is ultimately upheld on this ground, however, it will still be subject to challenge on other grounds. The trial court found that it violated the Due Process Clause because it is much broader than state commitment laws.

Meanwhile, the Sixth Circuit upheld a 17 1/2-year sentence for possessing child pornography, leading one judge to dissent (PDF):
Our "social revulsion" against these "misfits" downloading these images is perhaps somewhat more rational than the thousands of witchcraft trials and burnings conducted in Europe and here from the Thirteenth to the Eighteenth Centuries, but it borders on the same thing. In 2008 alone the Department of Justice has brought 2,200 cases like this one in the federal courts. Some trial and appellate judges are sending these mentally ill defendants federal prison for very long sentences. But the 17-1/2 year sentence for [the defendant in this case] may be the longest yet. He is a 65-year-old, psychologically disabled, former minister with Type 1 diabetes with many complications. How could this sentence be "not greater than necessary" to punish this crime?
The judge referred to an article last October in the Wall Street Journal, which reported: "Societal Revulsion at Child-Pornography Consumers Has Led to Stiff Prison Sentences -- and Caused Some Judges to Rebel."

H/t How Appealing.