Position Statement on Laws Providing for the Civil Committment of Sexually Violent Criminal Offenders
In its June, 1997 decision in Kansas v. Hendricks, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the
constitutionality of the use of a civil commitment process to continue the confinement of sexually
violent criminal offenders who are found to have a "mental abnormality" that causes them to pose
a danger to others, even if they are not found to have a "mental illness." In upholding the statute,
the Court gave the states broad discretion to define mental abnormality and to determine whether
a violent sex offender who has completed his or her prison sentence poses a continuing danger to
The Court's conclusion that the civil commitment of dangerous sex offenders who do not have a
mental illness is constitutional does not necessarily mean that such laws represent good policy. The
National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD) believes that some
statutes could have severe and negative consequences for people with mental illnesses and for the
public mental health system.
Specifically, NASMHPD believes that legislation allowing for the civil commitment of dangerous
sex offenders who do not have a mental illness to psychiatric hospitals following completion of their
prison sentences creates the following significant risks:
Laws which provide for the civil commitment of dangerous sex offenders for purposes that
are principally punitive or for the purpose of continuing confinement, rather than for the
purpose of providing treatment or psychiatric services, disrupt the state's ability to provide
services for people with treatable psychiatric illnesses and undermine the mission and
integrity of the public mental health system.
The civil commitment of dangerous sex offenders who may or may not respond to existing
treatment modalities and who will require enormous resources for very long lengths of stay
diverts scarce resources away from people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness
and who both need and desire treatment.
The commitment of dangerous sex offenders to psychiatric facilities could endanger the
safety of others in those facilities who have treatable psychiatric illnesses.
NASMHPD recognizes concerns about the dangers that criminally violent sex offenders may pose
upon release from prison. NASMHPD believes that these concerns should be addressed through
sentencing or other alternatives within the criminal justice system. Nonetheless, if civil
commitment processes are adopted to address these concerns, such statutes should adhere to the
- Statutes used to civilly commit dangerous sex offenders who do not have a mental illness
should be distinct from existing statutes for the civil commitment of people with mental
illnesses. Laws which do not clearly distinguish these procedures stigmatize the civil
commitment process and people diagnosed with mental illnesses who receive services under
a commitment process. Such stigma prevents people from seeking necessary and effective
treatment for diagnosable mental illnesses.
- Facilities and treatment programs for dangerous sex offenders should be administered and
funded outside the state mental health agency in order to maintain the mission and integrity
of the public mental health system. Confinement and treatment of dangerous sex offenders
or others who do not have a diagnosable mental illness are beyond the scope of that
traditionally administered by state mental health agencies.
- Treatment programs for dangerous sex offenders should be administered under
programmatic guidelines and philosophies that recognize the differences between these
criminal offenders and people with diagnosable psychiatric illnesses.
- Facilities for the confinement of dangerous sex offenders should be separate from facilities
for the treatment of people diagnosed with mental illnesses to ensure the safety of others and
to maintain the distinct commitment status of the criminal offenders.
- If dangerous sex offenders are confined in facilities under the purview of the state mental
health agency, it is imperative that the mental health agency play a significant role in
determining commitability and diagnoses, treatment strategies, and lengths of stay for sex
offenders civilly committed under the statute.
- Laws providing for the civil commitment of dangerous sex offenders should be narrowly
drafted to ensure that they apply only to dangerous and violent sex offenders who pose a
significant risk to society if released.
- Treatment for people determined to be dangerous sex offenders should be initiated during
criminal incarceration. Treatment programs should be rigorously examined, both during
incarceration and after, to determine effectiveness and to measure outcomes based on the
reduction of recidivism rates.
NASMHPD joins the American Psychiatric Association in calling for an increased investment in
research on paraphilic disorders and in the clinical training of mental health professionals regarding
assessment and treatment of people with those disorders. In addition, NASMHPD believes that state
mental health agencies should initiate and participate in broader early prevention and intervention
efforts to facilitate development of skills and competencies that help all people to build healthy,
meaningful, and socially responsible lives.
Adopted by the NASMHPD membership on 9/9/97.
The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD) represents the public mental health
service delivery system serving 6.1 million people annually in all 50 states and 5 territories.