Criticism of civil commitment, sex offender registry, residency laws

“This area is a major challenge for rational policy making, and there is little political support for change,” said Paul Appelbaum, M.D., as Aaron Levin reports for Psychiatric News. Appelbaum is a professor of psychiatry, medicine and law at Columbia University.

In a recent speech, Appelbaum criticized the hallmarks of modern sex offender laws, singling out civil commitment, the sex offender registry, and restrictions on where convicted offenders can live as “ineffective, expensive, and unenforceable.”

Civil Commitment

Appelbaum argues that civil commitment burdens an already-burdened mental health system because convicted sex offenders are treated for an indefinite period of time. Rather, Appelbaum proposes giving convicted offenders a definite prison sentence, with concurrent treatment, so that there is an end date to expensive detention and treatment.

Sex Offender Registration

Appelbaum argues that the sex offender registry is over-broad. An 18-year-old boyfriend convicted of having sex with his underage 15-year-old girlfriend, for example, would be required to register. This means the 19-year-old faces serious obstacles in finding a job or place to live.

Residency Restrictions

The registry also creates “sex-offender ghettos” by restricting offenders from living close to places like schools and day cares. “This has placed entire towns completely off limits,” Appelbaum said. The result is that everyone convicted of a sex offense lives in the same general area.