Sexual predator laws hold defendants convicted of sex crimes in detention after they have served their sentences. The laws are premised on the popular belief that sexual predators have an uncontrollable compulsion to commit sex crimes, and that an indefinite civil commitment is an appropriate means of protecting society from the crimes they might commit in the future.
State legislatures avoid double jeopardy concerns by claiming that sexual predators are not receiving more punishment after they finish their sentences. The laws generally require that defendants who are labeled as sexual predators receive treatment, although whether any treatment can defeat an actual compulsion to commit sex crimes is a hotly debated topic.
Whether or not they receive treatment, individuals who are labeled as sexual predators are confined to institutions that in many respects are indistinguishable from prisons. The deprivation of freedom has a punishing impact even if punishment is not the law’s stated purpose.
Release from Confinement
Sexual predator laws typically allow a confined individual to petition the court for release, based on evidence that the need for confinement no longer exists. After all, if the laws are justified by the rationale that offenders have a mental disorder for which they need treatment, individuals who respond to treatment and are no longer a likely threat should not continue to be confined.
The government typically resists release by calling experts who testify that the risk persists. Offenders respond with experts who testify that there is little reason to believe the offender will commit a new sex crime.
But do the experts have the data they need to form reliable opinions? As a recent article in Reason explains, the State of California took extraordinary steps to suppress a study that would have helped expert witnesses make better judgments about the risk to society that follows the release of an offender who has been defined as a sexual predator.
Sexual Predator Laws
Before an individual can be deprived of freedom, perhaps for the rest of that person’s life, sexual predator laws require two conditions to exist. First, the alleged predator must have been convicted of a sex crime. Each state defines the specific offenses and the number of convictions that are required before sexual predator proceedings can be commenced.
Second, a court must determine that the person poses a high risk to society. While the definition of a sexual predator who should be civilly committed varies from state to state, it generally has two components: (1) the alleged predator suffers from a mental abnormality or personality disorder that seriously impairs the ability to control sexually violent behavior, and (2) because of that disorder, the alleged predator will probably engage in acts of sexual violence if not confined.
Expert witnesses play a key role in sexual predator proceedings. Psychologists with experience evaluating sexual predators make predictions about the risk of future violence. In a typical case, separate experts testify for the government and for the alleged predator. A judge or jury then decides whether the government has met its burden of proving that the alleged predator must be confined for the safety of society.
Like too many laws, sexual predator legislation is based on fear, not on a neutral assessment of data. While offenders who commit other crimes are released after serving a sentence, public sentiment (or at least the sentiment of people whose voices are heard by legislatures) favors continuing the confinement of sex offenders on the unsupported theory that sex offenders are more likely than other criminals to commit new offenses after they are released. In fact, the data shows that most convicted sex offenders are never charged with another sex offense after they are released from prison.
Expert’s Study Undermines Premise of Sexual Predator Laws
Arguably, empirical data concerning sex offender recidivism does not capture the subset of offenders who are selected for additional confinement as sexual predators. Jesus Padilla decided to answer that question by gathering data that addressed the relevant population.
Jesus Padilla was a psychologist employed at Atascadero State Hospital in California. Padilla tracked individuals who had been confined as sexual predators and who were released without treatment after the State dropped the ball in pursuing recommitment (a process that California required at the time). Since the legal system identified those individuals as sexual predators but failed to give them treatment, Padilla expected that they would have a high rate of recidivism.
Padilla was surprised to find that five years after their release, only 6.5% of the offenders had been arrested for a new sex offense. That recidivism rate is remarkably low, considering that 49% of offenders convicted of other crimes are rearrested for a similar offense within 5 years of release.
Padilla’s Expert Testimony
In 2006, an individual confined as a sexual predator in California petitioned for release. His lawyer learned of Padilla’s study. The lawyer subpoenaed Padilla to testify as an expert witness.
The state objected that Padilla’s publicly funded research was confidential, a silly claim that the judge rejected. To protect the privacy of individuals who were studied, the judge limited Padilla to giving a summary of his findings.
Padilla’s research called into question the rationale for sexual predator confinements. Because he is honest, however, Padilla gave honest testimony about his research results. It turned out that honest expert testimony did not sit well with the State of California.
Expert Silenced for Telling the Truth
Like the prison industry, the sexual predator industry is a substantial employer. California spends more than $300 million a year on its sexual predator program. State employees depend on courts filling institutions with sexual predators so that they will continue to draw state paychecks. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that, with their jobs on the line, employees of the department responsible for confining sexual predators resisted Padilla’s conclusions.
It is surprising, however, that California chose to silence Padilla rather than criticizing his study or funding larger studies to determine whether his results could be replicated. According to a law review article that examined Padilla’s research, Padilla’s study was “halted in midcourse” after he testified. Reason explains that Padilla’s “records were confiscated, his hard copies were shredded, and he was forbidden to talk about his work.” His boss accused him of illegally accessing conviction data, a bogus charge that was dismissed after an independent investigation concluded that it was groundless. Padilla’s efforts to restart the research were consistently rejected.
The law professors who investigated Padilla’s case made a Freedom of Information Act request for the research data. The state responded with a shocking claim that it could not verify that Padilla had ever conducted a study. The law professors then confronted the state with documents proving that the study had been approved and funded. At that point, the state was forced to turn over the data. However, when Padilla inspected the data, he discovered that someone had tampered with the Excel files by carving up spreadsheets and rendering them useless. He also discovered that the data was incomplete.
Censoring an expert and suppressing an expert’s research because the expert’s findings are unwelcome is a shameful response to honest research. As Reason notes, authorities in California apparently prefer to adhere to their “unexamined assumptions” rather than considering evidence that might contradict the foundations of their work.
The law professors concluded that after Padilla testified, the state “may have realized the study had to be stopped because it threatened the legitimacy of the entire [sexual predator] program.” Nothing could be more antithetical to the honest research and expert analysis upon which the legal system depends than suppressing knowledge that undermines the basis for depriving individuals of their freedom.