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High Court Backs Forced Confessions

Law: Convicted sex offenders can be required to admit past crimes during rehab.


WASHINGTON — Convicted sex offenders can be forced to confess to their past crimes as part of a prison's rehabilitation program despite the Constitution's ban on forced self-incrimination, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.

In a 5-4 decision, the court upheld the sex abuse treatment programs used in Kansas.

The programs require prisoners--some of whom have proclaimed their innocence--to admit in detail to every sex offense they have committed during their lives. They are also given polygraph tests to see if they are telling the truth.

"Acceptance of responsibility is the beginning of rehabilitation," said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas agreed. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor concurred.

Kennedy pointed to a Justice Department study, which found that only about 15% of prisoners who complete the sex-abuse treatment are arrested again for sex crimes.

Those inmates who refuse to participate in the treatment lose privileges, such as having a television, and can be sent back to a maximum-security block. The court described these as minimal punishments.

Kansas reserves the right to prosecute inmates for new sex crimes that they admit during the treatment program.

Nonetheless, Kennedy concluded that the program "does not compel prisoners to incriminate themselves in violation of the Constitution."

The four dissenters, led by Justice John Paul Stevens, accused the majority of ignoring "a bedrock constitutional right." The government cannot punish anyone for refusing to confess, they said, even prisoners.

"We ought to ask ourselves--what if this is one of those rare cases in which the jury made a mistake, and [an inmate] is actually innocent?" Stevens wrote. Voluntary treatment programs pose no such problem, he added.

Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer joined his dissent.

Lawyers for 18 other states joined in support of Kansas, saying they had similar programs. California was not among them.

The ruling dealt a defeat to Robert Lile, who was convicted of raping and kidnapping a high school student in 1983. He claimed that the young woman got in his car of her own accord and that their encounter was consensual. A jury disagreed.

A few years before he was due to be released, prison officials ordered him to participate in the Sexual Abuse Treatment Program. He was required to complete a sexual history form and sign an "Admission of Responsibility."

Lile refused, contending that the requirement violated his rights under the 5th Amendment, which says: "No person ... shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself."

Because Kansas said it would prosecute inmates who revealed past sex crimes against minors, a federal judge and the U.S. court of appeals in Denver said the state could not punish Lile for remaining silent and refusing to cooperate.

Disagreeing in McCune vs. Lile, 00-1187, the Supreme Court said the 5th Amendment need not be interpreted so rigidly.

"If the state had to offer immunity [to uncooperative inmates such as Lile], the practical effect would be that serial offenders ... would be given a windfall for past bad conduct," Kennedy said.

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