The United States Supreme Court has just made a welcome announcement: many state laws designed to control dangerous sex offenders will be considered valid under the United States Constitution.
In Kansas v. Hendricks (June 23, 1997), the Sexually Violent Predator Act passed by the State of Kansas was challenged on the basis that it allowed for the indefinite, involuntary commitment of anyone "convicted of or charged with a sexually violent offense and who suffers from a mental abnormality or personality disorder which makes the person likely to engage in ... predatory acts of sexual violence." Writing for the majority, Justice Thomas found that the definition of persons to whom the law applied was narrow and specific enough to meet the Constitution's due process requirement, particularly because it required a finding that the person was likely to be dangerous in the future, rather than just having a general disposition toward violence.
More important, perhaps, was the high court's reaction to the challenges claiming that the new law violated the ex post facto and double jeopardy clauses of the Constitution. The law's opponents claimed that it was unconstitutional to punish these offenders based on past crimes for which they had already been sentenced. However, the Supreme Court ruled that the law did not punish; it was merely a civil commitment of offenders who continue to pose a likely danger after their period of imprisonment. Because the law was not punitive, it was not an ex post facto or double jeopardy violation.
This ruling also appears to be good news for Ohio's sexual predator law. Although Ohio's law does not provide for continued commitment of sexually violent offenders who were convicted before the law became effective, it does require long-term reporting by such offenders if they are judged likely to be dangerous in the future. The reporting requirement allows law enforcement agencies to keep track of potentially dangerous sex offenders after they are released from imprisonment. (See Crime and Punishment, August, 1996) Because this law applies to offenders convicted before its effective date, many challenges have made to it constitutionality. However, if the high court has ruled that continued commitment of such offenders is acceptable, it is unlikely that they would find Ohio's reporting requirements to be unconstitutional punishment.
Despite the fact that the Supreme Court's decision was made by a narrow five-to-four majority, it sends a clear message: state laws for the continuing control of dangerous sex offenders are here to stay!