The issue of civil commitments for sex offenders in Wisconsin remains a controversial topic with no easy answers. Every time a new case surfaces in the media, arguments for or against the release of sex offenders arise, but the talking points remain relatively unchanged.
Wisconsin is one of 20 states that have civil commitment laws that allow the government to hold sex offenders in custody after they've finished serving the sentences for their crimes. Even some U.S. Supreme Court justices have struggled over the question of whether states' duty to protect the public from sexually violent criminals violates due process.
The issue is once again front and center now that a 31-year-old Racine County, Wisconsin, man is asking to be released after being held at a treatment center for 10 years following his prison sentence. He was just 13 years old when he was convicted of three counts of first-degree sexual assault of a child and one count of incest of a child. A civil court decision deemed him a sexually violent person who sexually assaulted three young girls.
There will inevitably be doubts about any civilly committed sex offender's ability to be safely released, but the man in this case faces some particular challenges. In his 10 years of treatment he has only progressed one phase in a four-phase treatment program and has yet to start a behavior modification plan, which is designed to reduce the chances of reoffending. The man has also been living in a prison setting for more than half of his life, a hurdle for anyone released and expected to adjust to living in a regular community.
It's too early to say whether the man's three-day bench trial will result in his release, but there will undoubtedly be a fight that extends beyond prosecutors in the case. Community protests are common even when sex offenders without civil commitments are released. But how much weight should public opposition carry when deciding whether a person should be held indefinitely after serving a criminal sentence? How can we accurately determine a person's threat to public safety, and to what extent should that perceived threat override his or her freedom? These questions probably won't be definitively answered in this trial, but as long as civil commitment laws exist, they'll continue to be asked.
Source: The Journal-Times, "Man confined for sexual assault seeking release," Kristen Zambo, Sept. 11, 2012
· Our firm handles sex crimes and a wide variety of other criminal defense cases. To learn more about our practice, visit our Wisconsin sex crimes page.