This week the U.S Supreme Court upheld the indefinite detention of sexually violent federal offenders. The Court had previously upheld civil commitments on a state level in Kansas v. Hendricks, 521 U.S. 346 (1997). In fact there are eight men in prison in Pennsylvania who have completed their sentence. Pennsylvania is one of 20 states that provide for the civil commitment of sexually dangerous offenders. There are more than 3,600 men, and some women, committed or detained across the country.
This week the U.S. Supreme Court decided a challenge to the federal government’s authority to impose civil commitments through 18 U.S.C. § 4248, which authorizes federal district courts to order the civil commitment of sexually dangerous federal prisoners even after they have served their criminal sentences.
In U.S. v. Comstock, 560 U.S. ___ (2010), the High Court was asked to decide if the federal government usurped the power of the states through the Adam Walsh Act. Graydon Comstock was sentenced to three years in prison for possession of child pornography. Just days before the end of his sentence he was designated “sexually dangerous,” was civilly committed, and has been kept in a North Carolina institution for the last two years along with 105 other similarly situated men.
Solicitor General Elena Kaganargued the government's case in front of the Supreme Court. Kagan has now been nominated to replace the retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.
Writing for a 7 to 2 majority, Justice Stephen Breyer penned the opinion that upheld the federal civil commitment statute. Chief Justice John G. Roberts joined Breyer's opinion in full. Although disagreeing with some of the language in the majority opinion, Justices Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito each wrote a separate opinion agreeing with the result. Only Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissented.
The Court found, after close scrutiny of five considerations, it was compelled to conclude that Article I’s Necessary and Proper Clause granted Congress authority sufficient to enact 18 U.S.C. § Section 4248.
First, the Court emphasized that Congress has broad powers to create federal crimes to further various enumerated powers. Congress can then ensure enforcement of these crimes, and guarantee the safety of those who may be affected, by imprisoning offenders in federal prisons.
Second, Congress has long enacted prison-related mental health statutes. There are laws that permit the postdetention civil commitment of federal prisoners who are deemed mentally ill and dangerous.
Third, as a custodian of its prisoners, the federal government has a responsibility to protect the public from the dangers created by an individual’s release from federal custody. Congress could have reasonably concluded that some federal inmates suffer from a mental illness that causes them to "have serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct."
Fourth, Section 4248 does not interfere with or limit state sovereign authority. The Necessary and Proper Clause is not “reserved to the States.”
Finally, Section 4248 is narrow, applying only to a small fraction of prisoners.
Justice Breyer concluded, "Taken together, these considerations lead us to conclude that the statute is a "necessary and proper" means of exercising the federal authority that permits Congress to create federal criminal laws, to punish their violation, to imprison violators, to provide appropriately for those imprisoned, and to maintain the security of those who are not imprisoned but who may be affected by the federal imprisonment of others. The Constitution consequently authorizes Congress to enact the statute."
To read full opinion: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=000&invol=08-1224
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