States may have to treat offenders held indefinitely

Lack of mental care for violent sex criminals may be unconstitutional

January 18, 2001|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court hinted broadly yesterday that a state might have to provide mental health treatment for violent sex offenders if it confines them indefinitely after they finish serving prison sentences.

Four years ago, the court had ruled by a 5-4 vote that the Constitution allows states to put such criminals away for long periods - perhaps many years - after their prison terms end. But the justices have never spelled out the conditions that must exist in the state facilities that hold those inmates.

Yesterday, the court did not give a final answer, but it did suggest - by an apparently unanimous vote - that a state's failure to provide mental health treatment, or a failure to treat those individuals as patients rather than as prisoners, could make such indefinite confinement unconstitutional.

Sixteen states have laws providing for the long-term confinement of violent sex offenders after they finish their prison sentences. (Maryland has no such law, but state officials are considering proposing one this year.)

The justices said in an opinion by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor that because such confinement is usually imposed on the theory that violent sex offenders have a mental disorder, the lack of treatment would violate the right to "due process."

State and federal courts, O'Connor wrote, "remain competent to adjudicate and remedy challenges to civil confinement schemes" based on the U.S. Constitution.

In another part of the decision, the court ruled, over the lone dissent of Justice John Paul Stevens, that individual criminals who are confined as violent sex offenders cannot challenge the lack of treatment for themselves alone. Their claim must be that confinement conditions are unconstitutional as they apply to all such offenders at a facility, the court indicated.

The case involves a Washington state man, Andre Brigham Young, who was convicted of six rapes over 31 years. When he was scheduled to be released from prison after his most recent sentence for rape, the state had him confined indefinitely as a "violent sex predator."

His case in the Supreme Court contended that during seven years of such confinement, he has received inadequate treatment and has been held under prison-like conditions that amount to punishment not conducive to any chance of recovery from his condition, and with no chance of release if he improves.

The court indicated that Young may now pursue those claims under state law on the theory that he is entitled to treatment in proper conditions, or under the U.S. Constitution on the theory that he is not receiving the care that was supposed to accompany confinement.

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