Inside an odd Los Angeles County courthouse, perhaps the most vexing problem facing the criminal justice system plays out several times a week.
It's a place where constitutional liberties, society's right to protect itself and the ever-changing science of abnormal psychology collide. And there are no good solutions.
This is the courtroom, the only one of its kind in the county, devoted to cases involving violent sexual predators, the child molesters and repeated rapists who have finished their prison sentences but are liable for civil commitment.
These are the ones no institution wants. These are also the ones whose risk of reoffense is so high almost nobody wants to let them go, either.
In an unprecedented use of the legal system, the state allows sex criminals to be locked away based not on crimes they have committed, but on the possibility they might offend again. And that, simply, is the root of the controversy: Is society going too far, as the judge who oversees these cases believes, or are vulnerable people being rightfully protected from dangerous sex criminals?
California approved its sexually violent predator law four years ago after a number of high-profile cases, such as that of the so-called Pillowcase Rapist, stirred politicians and activists into action. Christopher Hubbart, who was linked to about 30 rapes in which he typically covered victims' faces with a pillowcase, was the first to be held under the law.
The politicians' goal was to keep sex criminals who were convicted before stricter sentencing laws were enacted from reentering society. The law allows the state to civilly commit repeated sex criminals to a state mental hospital where they must remain for at least two years, and might be held indefinitely.
As in 16 other states with similar statutes, California's law has been tested time and again in the courts. The California Supreme Court upheld the law last year. The U.S. Supreme Court found in 1997 that Kansas' law, which is similar to California's, could not be considered punishment if sex offenders are held in state treatment facilities. The justices agreed in March to review Washington state's statute based on a case brought by a man who contends that he has been unduly punished by being held for nine years without treatment.
The state's mental health department contends that the program will eventually require construction of a new state hospital devoted to the treatment of sex criminals. Until then, however, "a clash of tensions" is resulting, according to Steven Mayberg, the department's director.
The inmates are angry about being detained when they are nearing the end of their prison terms; the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department chafes under the difficulties of keeping them as they await commitment proceedings; some judges and lawyers question the constitutionality of the law while even some civil libertarians argue that these offenders should be kept in some kind of controlled environment. Advocates for the mentally ill, meanwhile, believe the statute is diagnosis by legislation, rather than a determination of a true medical disorder. Sex offenders, they say, are taking up valuable space in a state mental hospital.
Public sentiment appears to lean toward keeping sex offenders detained, anywhere, at any cost.
"When you say to a person sitting on a jury: child molester on the streets, child molester in jail?. . . . They're going to say that we should never have let them out to begin with," said John J. Vacca, head deputy of the mental health branch of the public defender's office.
All Agree No Cure Exists
Although a range of disagreement exists over the merits of the sex offenders law and treatment, everyone agrees that no cure exists. Many experts say treatment can reduce the risks of reoffense but that a deviant sexual behavior is more of an addiction than an illness.
"It's not a mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disease," said Dr. Craig Nelson, the clinical administrator at Atascadero State Hospital, "but it's clearly a mental disorder. It's a fine distinction that gets lost on most people."
Sex offenders are typically diagnosed as having paraphilia, a relatively generic term used to describe deviant sexual behavior.
Research shows that sex offenders whose victims are male and who have a history of violent sex crimes have high recidivism rates. One study conducted by Canadian researchers found that sex criminals probably will reoffend the first few years after being released, and that the rates keep increasing with time.
The sexually violent predator program begins with the Department of Corrections, which refers repeated sex criminals at the end of their prison terms to the Department of Mental Health for psychiatric examinations. Since the law became effective, the corrections department has screened more than 36,000 inmates.