sexual-predator law

sexual-predator law

      statute that mandates lengthy periods of preventive detention for habitual sexual offenders and sexual psychopaths beyond their criminal sentences. Sexual-predator laws became popular in the United States in the 1990s, and their passage raised constitutional questions about double jeopardy and the balancing of the rights of offenders against those of the wider community.

      During the 1930s and '40s, many U.S. states adopted a civil commitment procedure for dangerous sexual offenders who had been designated sexual psychopaths; under these laws, offenders were incarcerated until they had been judged not to pose a public danger. Subsequently, similar laws were adopted in Canada and in other countries, especially in Scandinavia. However, in the 1960s the U.S. laws were invalidated by federal courts.

      A series of horrific cases of child murder in the United States in the early 1990s alarmed the public and legislators and raised doubts about the adequacy of existing laws aimed at protecting children from sexual abuse. Beginning in 1990, state legislatures passed new laws mandating the long-term incarceration of serious sex offenders, who would be detained as much for their predicted future dangerousness as for the specific crime they committed. The impetus for these laws was the widespread belief that sexual offenders are essentially incorrigible and individuals who commit a sexual offense are likely to repeat their crimes after their release from prison. The laws typically made the long-term incarceration of an offender contingent on a court finding that he had a mental illness that was likely to cause him to commit additional offenses upon his release. In such cases, the state could detain the offender, treating him until he was judged to have been cured of his illness. Opponents of the laws argued that they violated the principle of due process and the ex post facto (ex post facto law) clause of the United States Constitution and that they constituted double jeopardy. In 1997, however, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld Kansas's sexual-predator law, which was ostensibly more objectionable on constitutional grounds than most other such laws because it required only that the state prove mental abnormality—rather than mental illness—in order to detain an offender.

      In the 1990s, many jurisdictions in the United States and Europe also began to adopt statutes based on Megan's law, which required that convicted sex offenders register with the police in their communities and that police notify schools, day-care centres, and other residents of the offenders' presence; the law followed the rape and murder of Megan Kanka by a twice-convicted sexual offender living in her neighbourhood.

John Philip Jenkins

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Universalium. 2010.

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