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Indefinite detention OK for sex offenders

by Charles Platt

“The Supreme Court ruled Monday that federal officials can indefinitely hold inmates considered ‘sexually dangerous’ after their prison terms are complete.” (Washington Post)

Since it is her duty to do so, nominee Elena Kagan argued the government’s case in favor of indefinite detention. She “compared the government’s power to commit sexual predators to its power to quarantine federal inmates whose sentences have expired but have a highly contagious and deadly disease.”

Clarence Thomas dissented, saying he could find no provision for this in the US Constitution. That’s one cheer for Clarence. Scalia was the other dissenter. The remaining justices couldn’t find anything wrong with the legislation that legitimizes this indefinite detention.

It seems to me, there is a spectrum of risk, here. At one end of the spectrum, we keep society safe by locking up everyone indefinitely who has committed a crime against another person. At the other end of the spectrum, we don’t bother to lock up any of them. Somewhere between these two extremes is a reasonable compromise, where we accept some risk in the interests of returning people to the community so that they have a chance to earn a living and pay taxes (and child support in some cases), while we no longer have to pay for them to be incarcerated.

Unfortunately legislators and DAs have created such a climate of fear, there’s a sense that any risk is unacceptable. This may explain why the US has more prison inmates, both by number and as a percentage of its population, than any other nation in the world.

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