Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Tangled Web

Civil rights are a sticky wicket. On the one hand, no one should ever be denied due process and full rights of citizenship, assuming they've earned them and have not forfeited them.
On the other, well, there have to be some exceptions. I'm just not sure this is wholly appropriate:

A 7-to-2 majority of the Supreme Court ruled today that Congress has the authority to pass a law allowing federal prisoners who have been deemed "sexually dangerous" to be held beyond the date of their original sentence.

The law, a provision of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, was passed in 2006. A lower court had ruled that Congress overstepped its boundaries in passing the law.

But Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, found that the Constitution grants Congress the authority to enact the law.

"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," he wrote.

Clearly, there are some menaces to society: an uncontrollable serial killer would be one, a legally insane person who is unable to distinguish right from wrong and acts accordingly would be another. As I oppose the death penalty in all cases, these are people for whom a prison cell or hospital room (as the case may be) should be the next and last residence. These are people for whom due process presumably has been carried out and an impartial judge or jury has established the forfeiture of their civil rights.

The issues become muddled beyond that. The issue at bar in yesterday's SCOTUS was whether the Federal government could pass a law that superseded state laws with respect to a class of criminal. The issue that SHOULD have been at bar, in my opinion, was whether a "sexually dangerous person" could be detained indefinitely, even after he or she had served a sentence imposed after a trial.

The wonder of American jurisprudence is, once you've served whatever penalty you've incurred as the result of your criminality, the system deems you a whole citizen again. That may not work in practice as nicely as it sounds, of course. You still have a black mark on your record, and that can work against you in job-seeking, or future criminal investigations, as well as societal stigma. None of that is illegal, and none of that should be prevented at law.

In this case, for sex offenders, it seems we have to truncate that right. 

The question that springs to mind, then, is what is the definition of "sexually dangerous" and moreover, why is that person's sentence raising into question whether he or she can be released back into society? If we presume, as many death penalty advocates do, that a sentence is a deterrent to the commission of a crime, and people are still committing that crime, and afterwards, must continue to pay a systemic price for this crime, then perhaps the sentence itself has failed, and we can avoid trampling a civil right by simply doing the right thing in the first place, and making the sentence harsher?
If you make "sexually dangerous" a state of being as opposed to a behavior that can be rehabilitated, it's not a long stretch to imagine other behaviors that will suddenly morph into criminality: drug use, for example, or listening to dangerous thoughts.
And if behaviors can suddenly become criminal states of being, what about states of being that don't fit easily into the American mainstream, like atheism, or homosexuality?
There's the real danger in this spider web.