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Civil Commitment: Incarceration based solely on what might happen

Being convicted of a sexually-related offense carries a lifelong stigma and the consequences usually continue long after a period of incarceration is over. However, did you realize that it is possible to be held in involuntary confinement even after your prison term has been completed?

Civil commitment proceedings for sex offenders have been used in both state and federal courts to keep people who are deemed to be a threat to themselves and others confined indefinitely—and that includes people who have been previously convicted of violent or particularly shocking sex offenses.

There are some important things about the process that you should know:

— Until recently, anybody who was sentenced to the program in Missouri, which is now named the Sex Offender Rehabilitation and Treatment Services, found themselves perpetually confined. In 2015, a judge ruled that the program is legal, but it was being applied in a manner that was unconstitutional.

— There is ongoing class-action litigation over the way that SORTS evaluates patients for release. Just the same, about 20 new patients a year are committed to SORTS, which means that any sex offender has the potential to still wind up in the facility.

— Prisoners don't find out that they are to be evaluated for a civil confinement hearing until they are near the end of their prison term. If you are identified as a potentially sexually-dangerous person, the petition for the civil commitment hearing automatically puts a hold on any release until after the hearing, regardless of when your prison term actually ends.

— Because the proceeding is civil in nature, not criminal, the state doesn't have to prove that a sex offender is likely to re-offend "beyond a reasonable doubt," only that there is "clear and convincing" evidence that the individual is sexually dangerous and likely to re-offend. That's a much lower burden of proof than was required in your criminal trial, and it is much easier for the prosecution to meet.

If you find yourself facing a civil commitment hearing due to your history as a sexual offender and the possibility that you could be an ongoing danger to others, it's important to seek legal assistance as soon as possible. An attorney can help you present your case in the best light possible and make sure that your rights are protected throughout the process.

Source: FindLaw, "Civil Commitment for Sex Offenders," accessed Dec. 16, 2016

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