Throughout most of the country, it’s far easier to have a distressed relative involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution than it is to have a violent rapist who truly poses a danger to the community around him committed. Every state has policies that allow for certain groups of people to be involuntarily committed, typically including those who are considered to be a danger to themselves or to others (although, in practice, people are often committed for little more than a single psychiatrist thinking that their behavior is a bit abnormal). Classification as a “danger to others” seems to be particularly appropriate for those who are labeled as sexually violent predators, a designation that is only given to people convicted of particularly heinous sex crimes who also have been given a psychiatric diagnosis that is court-determined to make them an ongoing danger to the community.
So, why are civil commitment programs for sexually violent offenders so incredibly controversial? One typical argument is that many people who are labeled as sexually violent offenders often have no true, diagnosable mental illness. However, this standard is often deemed irrelevant in civil commitments of those who are not rapists and child molesters. If someone calls 911 and states that they are about to commit suicide, emergency responders do not wait to determine which particular diagnoses may apply to that person before bringing him to a psychiatric hospital, nor do hospital personnel release a suicidal person who does not meet the diagnostic criteria for any particular mental illness. Regardless, psychiatric diagnoses are universally subjective, and there is no definitive test of any kind for even a single psychiatric diagnosis. Another argument against protecting civilians in this manner is that sex offenders are incurable, so attempting to rehabilitate them in psychiatric institutions is fruitless and wastes resources that could otherwise help those who are truly “mentally ill.” While sex offender rehabilitation programs of any kind are typically far from perfect, they can, at the very least, teach some of these otherwise unstoppable criminals how to empathize with their victims and exercise a level of self-control if and when they are returned to the community. The other common argument in opposition to these civil commitments is that it qualifies as double jeopardy. However, this is an irrelevant argument as while the action to qualify someone as a sexually violent offender starts with the Department of Justice, if that qualification is made, that person will typically be in the custody of the Department of (Mental) Health at the end of his/her prison sentence. It is not retrying someone for the same crime- it is simply holding that criminal to the same standard that those of us who follow the law are held to- if we are considered to be a danger to others, we are subject to detention in a psychiatric hospital until we are no longer so considered.
The laws that allow for the involuntary commitment of innocent civilians are, at best, vague, discriminatory, unconstitutional, and in need of serious investigation and consideration into alternatives that do not deprive individuals who are dealing with emotional struggles of their liberty. According to Juan E Mendez, Special Rapporteur to the U.N. on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, “I believe that the severity of the mental illness cannot justify detention nor can it be justified by a motivation to protect the safety of the person or of others. Furthermore, deprivation of liberty that is based on the grounds of a disability and that inflicts severe pain or suffering falls under the scope of the Convention against Torture. In making such an assessment, factors such as fear and anxiety produced by indefinite detention, the infliction of forced medication or electroshock, the use of restraints and seclusion, the segregation from family and community, should be taken into account.” Grassroots organizations that advocate for maintaining human rights for those who receive a psychiatric diagnosis, such as Mind Freedom International, are attempting to change this convoluted system, but while it is still our system, can anyone honestly say that we should have lower standards for taking away our brothers’, sisters’, and friends’ rights than convicted rapists’ rights?
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