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Sexual Predators - Sexual Psychopath Laws

statutes commitment offender psychiatry

In the early twentieth century, the Progressive movement focused on the causes of deviance and emphasized treatment and discretionary responses to individual cases. In the 1930s, newly developed psychiatric explanations of habitual criminality (including sexual deviance) and the influx of psychiatry into the courts laid the groundwork for the sex psychopath statutes, a series of laws that were enacted in about half the states during the late 1930s to the 1960s. These statutes took a variety of forms. Some were civil commitment statutes; some were criminal sentencing statutes; and some were hybrids. All, however, were based on the assumption that criminal sexual conduct, or at least some forms of it, were the product of mental disorder, and that afflicted individuals were too sick to deserve punishment. The sex psychopath laws were thus conceived as alternatives to the criminal justice system. For example, a Minnesota law was initially aimed at relatively harmless individuals for relatively trivial crimes. But the laws were written exceedingly broadly, and their application varied geographically and temporally. The rate of commitment in Minnesota during the period 1939–1969 was approximately 15 percent of those convicted, whereas in California in the 1950s, about 35 percent of apprehended sex offenders were committed as psychopaths. By the 1970s, the focus of the Minnesota law had shifted to violent recidivists, and the rate of commitments had dropped by 90 percent.

In 1977, the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry ("GAP") issued an influential report entitled Psychiatry and Sex Psychopath Legislation: The 30s to the 80s. This report, along with several other influential professional reports, recommended the repeal of the sex offender commitment legislation. The GAP Report characterized sex offender commitment statutes as an "experiment [that] has failed" (p. 942). Professionals lacked adequate clinical skills to predict future behavior and to treat sexual violence effectively. This resulted in a failure to accomplish the treatment goal of the laws, and the unjust incarceration for extended periods of time of people who did not pose a danger. By the 1980s, most of the states with sex offender commitment laws had either repealed them, or had ceased actively using them.

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