Should Pedophiles Be Locked Away Forever?

Opinion, Crime, NakedLaw

Douglas Hughes, a California candidate for governor, recently floated the idea of a “pedophile island,” where pedophiles would be sent permanently.  What many people don’t realize is that “pedophile islands” already exist in America, and the Supreme Court has endorsed them.

Prison is not enough

On Hughes’ website, he says the following:

“Currently, our government places pedophiles in prison. After short sentences, they are released back into our neighborhoods to rape our children. How mentally ill can one government be?  Why should Californians tolerate this practice?”

But, in fact, California does not release all pedophiles from prison after they’ve completed their sentences.  Over at Coalinga State Hospital, hundreds of “sexually violent predators” are housed indefinitely after they’ve served their prison sentences.  There, the vast majority of “patients” will live behind locked doors and barbed wire until they die.  Indeed, only a minuscule fraction of patients are ever released from the hospital, and if they are, it’s after they’ve passed polygraph and phallometric tests proving they are no longer attracted to children whatsoever.  Some patients are only released after chemical or physical castration.

Coalinga State Hospital – California’s original “pedophile island”?

The BBC produced a documentary about Coalinga State Hospital, a 320 acre facility built in 2005 for sexually violent predators that can house up to 1,500 patients.  In that film, hospital staff revealed that only 13 people have been released from the facility, and at least one of whom had been physically castrated.  Each patient costs around $200,000 per year.

Coalinga is not a prison, at least not technically.  All patients have already completed their prison sentences, but the courts have decided they’re too dangerous to be released into society.  Accordingly, the sprawling complex indefinitely warehouses hundreds of men in a sort of limbo in between jail and freedom, which includes sports facilities, music, parties, movie nights and the freedom to roam around inside.

Despite Coalinga being a called a “hospital,” around 70% of patients are refusing any sort of treatment.  When film makers asked patients why, the general sentiment seemed to be that treatment was a farce.  Patients were convinced that the hospital was simply a prison where people would be housed until death, regardless of any treatment they do or don’t receive.

Judging by the numbers, they’re right — a patient is more likely to be released by challenging his commitment legally vs. trying to “get well” through treatment.  Sometimes lawyers even advise clients not to participate in treatment, because it can require confessing to unprosecuted crimes.

Civil commitment of pedophiles in the USA

Coalinga State Hospital is not the only place in America where pedophiles are held after prison.  The indefinite confinement of pedophiles  is called “involuntary civil commitment,” and it exists at the federal level and in at least 19 states. A New York Times article from 2007 says that a total of of 3,000 people had been civilly committed since 1990, with the number rapidly rising, especially with former President Bush offering money to states to help pay for civil commitment.

But is civil commitment constitutional?

Locking away pedophiles forever may make all the practical sense in the world, but it some think it flies in the face of the American justice system.  Critics argue:

  • Prisoners are held even after they’ve “done their time.”
  • Prisoners are held indefinitely not for a crime they’ve committed, but one that they are deemed likely to commit.
  • Prisoners are being punished twice for the same crime.
  • Prisoners are being denied due process because they’re essentially jailed in a hospital under a lighter standard (clear and convincing evidence) than is used to jail people in prison (beyond a reasonable doubt).

The Supreme Court weighs in

The Supreme Court has weighed in on several of the above issues and has upheld the ability of states to civilly commit pedophiles.  In Kansas v. Hendricks, the Supreme Court ruled that civil commitment does not violate due process, even if pedophilia is considered a “mental abnormality,” not a “mental illness.”  The Court also rejected arguments about ex post facto laws (punishing someone for a crime that wasn’t illegal when it was committed) and double jeopardy (trying someone of the same crime twice) because involuntary commitment is civil, not criminal.

Most recently, in United States v. Comstock, the Supreme Court held that the federal government doesn’t overstep its constitutional boundaries by making laws that civilly commit pedophiles.

The future of “pedophile islands”

Douglas Hughes may be exciting voters by calling for literal pedophile islands, but in reality that will never happen.  More likely, especially with the backing of the Supreme Court, we will see an expansion of “pedophile islands” like Coalinga State Hospital.

At $200,000 a year per “patient,” civil commitment is certainly more expensive than dumping pedophiles on an island at sea or even housing them in a conventional prison, but at least it passes constitutional muster.  And, really, what other choice do we have?