Dangerous Diagnoses, Risky Assumptions, and the Failed Experiment of 'Sexually Violent Predator' Commitment
114 Pages Posted: 11 Jun 2014 Last revised: 14 Nov 2015
Date Written: June 9, 2014
In the 1997 opinion, Kansas v. Hendricks, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a law that presented a new model of civil commitment. The targets of these new commitment laws were dubbed “Sexually Violent Predators,” and the Court upheld this form of indefinite detention on the assumption that there is a psychiatrically distinct class of individuals who, unlike typical recidivists, have a mental condition that impairs their ability to refrain from violent sexual behavior. And, more specifically, the Court assumed that the justice system could reliably identify the true “predators,” those for whom this unusual and extraordinary deprivation of liberty is appropriate and legitimate, with the aid of testimony from mental health professionals. This Article evaluates the extent to which those assumptions were correct and concludes that they were seriously flawed and, therefore, the due process rationale used to uphold the SVP laws is invalid. The category of the “Sexually Violent Predator” is a political and moral construct, not a medical classification. The implementation of the laws has resulted in dangerous distortions of both psychiatric expertise and important legal principles, and such distortions reveal an urgent need to re-examine the Supreme Court’s core rationale in upholding the SVP commitment experiment.
Keywords: civil commitment, psychiatry, psychiatric evidence, due process, sex offenders
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