Council on Sex Offender Treatment Civil Commitment of the Sexually Violent Predator - US History

Legislation for civil commitment of sexual offenders has occurred for two generations. Beginning in the late 1930s, many states enacted “sexual psychopath” statutes for the involuntary commitment of sexual offenders described as “psychopathic personalities, sexually dangerous persons, psychopathic offenders, and sexual psychopaths.” Aimed at sexual offenders to be at high risk for recidivism, the statutes provided protection for the public and rehabilitation for offenders (Lieb, 1998: Lieb and Matson, 1998: Horwitz, 1995; American Psychiatric Association, 1999: Wilson 1998).

In 1948, Congress adopted commitment laws to reflect the inability of sex offenders to control their behavior and shaped the ability of the law to confine sexual psychopaths. By the 1960s more than half of the states had enacted sexual psychopath statutes and the clinical/rehabilitative model. However ten years later, most states had repealed their focus from treatment and rehabilitation to prosecution and prison. The near complete abandonment of sexual psychopath statutes was followed by the emergence of the justice model. This ideological transfer to retributive management was consistent with the attitude in the nation regarding law and order reform. Despite the severe penalties, it was obvious this model failed to contain offenders who had discharged their strict sentences but still posed a threat to society and were released into the community.

The intent of civil commitment law is to enable the states to contain a small group of very dangerous sex offenders who do not have the requisite mental disease or defect rendering them subject to the existing involuntary civil commitment statute. The law’s rationale was based on public safety and community protection. Unlike the previous generation of sexual psychopath laws, civil commitment provided a means to contain the offender who discharged their prison sentence until community safety could be assured.

Last updated April 5, 2010