The New Jersey Psychiatric Association is supporting a sexual predator law that places psychiatrists in the pivotal role of evaluating whether convicted sex offenders who have served their sentences are still dangerous to society. The bill's stated purpose, similar to the Kansas statute upheld by the United States Supreme Court in 1997 in the case Kansas v. Hendricks, is to protect society from dangerous sex offenders.
At press time, Governor Christie Whitman(R) was expected to sign the New Jersey bill into law, which is part of a four-bill package recommended by the Governor's Task Force for the Review of the Treatment of the Criminally Insane.
According to Thomas Houseknecht, M.D., the New Jersey Psychiatric Association (NJPA) state legislative representative, the executive council agreed to support the bill after numerous lengthy debates. (For APA's national position on the issue, click here).
"We decided it was better for us to provide our input and have a role because we are the most qualified to diagnose and treat this population," said Houseknecht. "The legislature agreed with our view, which is reflected in the bill."
To initiate commitment proceedings under the proposed bill, the state's attorney general must obtain a certificate from a psychiatrist stating that the inmate or patient being treated in a psychiatric unit in a community hospital or psychiatric facility has been examined and meets the criteria for sexual predator or involuntary commitment.
A "sexual predator" refers to an individual who has been convicted of committing sexually violent offenses such as rape and sexual homicide or charged with committing sexually violent offenses but found incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity.
Houseknecht continued, "At the same time, this is a risky position for us to take because it is difficult to predict future sexual violence, and there is no guarantee that sex offenders can be successfully treated."
The bill would amend an existing commitment statute to broaden the definition of mental illness to include a mental abnormality or personality disorder that predisposes individuals to repeat sexually violent acts. The current commitment statute developed by the NJPA, defined mental illness as a "current, substantial disturbance of thought, mood, perception, or orientation. . . ."
Clark Martin, the lobbyist for the NJPA, told Psychiatric News that the impetus to redefine the commitment criteria began in 1994 after 7-year-old Megan Kanka of Hamilton Township, N.J., was raped and murdered by a neighbor who had served a 12-year prison sentence for sex offenses.
Because psychiatrists who examined the felon prior to his release did not find that he was psychotic or dangerous to himself or others, he was not committed. The public outcry that followed Kanka's murder led to the 1994 passage of what has become known as Megan's Law, which requires community notification of convicted sex offenders. The legislature amended the civil commitment law to read "the definition of mental illness specifically is not limited to findings of psychosis or active psychosis." A provision also required that convicted sex offenders determined by the court to be at risk of repetitive, compulsive behavior be evaluated at the end of their term.
If the proposed sexual predator amendment is enacted, New Jersey will join at least 10 states with such laws on the books.
The New Jersey Law Network Web site is www.njlawnet.com/title2c_7-1.html. The text of the Supreme Court decision in the case Kansas v. Hendricks is posted at www.findlaw.com.