When we learned that the Supreme Court was reviewing a law that allows the federal government to confine prisoners indefinitely even after they have completed their prison sentences, we naturally assumed that the legal issue involved due process for the prisoner.
Unfortunately, that wasn't the case last week when the court heard arguments over the constitutionality of the indefinite detention of "sexually dangerous" prisoners. The justices' questions mostly focused on whether Washington, as opposed to the states, has the authority to do so -- not whether indefinite detention is allowable.
That issue of federalism isn't unimportant, but the more pressing question is whether civil commitment for a mental condition is being misused to force felons to remain in prison after they've completed their legal sentences.
The court gave states that power in 1997 when it ruled 5 to 4 that Kansas had properly committed a sex offender who was about to be released. The state had enacted a law allowing for the confinement in a state hospital of "any person who has been convicted of or charged with a sexually violent offense and who suffers from a mental abnormality or personality disorder which makes the person likely to engage in the predatory acts of sexual violence." As Justice Stephen G. Breyer noted in his dissent, the commitment in that case "was not simply an effort to commit [the prisoner] civilly, but rather an effort to inflict further punishment upon him." The same abuse of civil commitment is possible under the federal statute being challenged on federalism grounds.