Privatization of sex-offender treatment programs might not head everyone’s list of significant issues, but it’s highly important to civil libertarians.

Indeed, the very practice of keeping sex offenders behind bars after their criminal sentences have been served is an issue fraught with civil rights and constitutional questions. After someone has “paid his debt to society,” isn’t he free to go about his lawful business?

Yes…and no.

Because recidivism among sex offenders is high, states have found another way to keep offenders off the streets, called “civil commitment.” Once an offender has served his criminal sentence, he can be brought before a civil court to determine whether he remains a threat to society. If the court says yes, the offender is sent to a secured rehabilitation facility.

The practice protects society from offenders who likely would commit additional crimes. But because there is so much public fear about sex offenders, pushing prosecutors and courts into action, it also risks targeting those who are not a threat. And it blurs lines between criminal and civil authority, as well as between justice and injustice.

Courts have held that the practice is constitutional if continued incarceration is for treatment and not for punishment.

It was the punishment issue that caused Virginia to reject a proposal to transfer Virginia’s treatment facility from public to private management.

Rather like the first private proposal to take over operation of Virginia’s public port, two bids to take over the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation came to the state unsolicited.

One bid was rejected because officials decided that the private prisons operator focused too much on incarceration and not enough on treatment (“Va. won’t privatize sex offender treatment program,” The Daily Progress, March 16). This was precisely the concern that civil libertarians had raised when the privatization issue first surfaced.

The second bid was rejected because it was too costly, proposing to charge $2.4 million a year more than Virginia spends to run the facility itself. Public management is more efficient that private enterprise in this case.

Across the nation, meanwhile, incarcerating sex offenders for treatment has become a huge expense. States began these programs when their economies were thriving. But a combination of economic decline and mission creep — the tendency to remand more and more offenders to these programs under relaxed standards — has rendered the programs more expensive than anticipated. Yet leaders fear the political backlash that eliminating or reducing them would cause.

So far, Virginia seems to have avoided this particular hazard. But it is worth noting that the danger of escalating costs exists — especially if Virginia falls prey to the temptation of increasing civil commitments due to political pressure rather than impartial justice.

  

 

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