Civil Commitment of People Convicted of Sex Offenses in the United States

UCLA School of Law Williams Institute: AUTHORS Trevor Hoppe, Ilan H. Meyer, Scott De Orio, Stefan Vogler, Megan Armstrong; October 2020


Twenty states, the federal government, and D.C. have laws that allow for the indefinite detention of sex offenders designated as a “Sexually Violent Person” or “Sexually Violent Predator” (SVP) beyond the term of their incarceration. This report explores the implications civil commitment laws have for Black and sexual minority communities.

Executive Summary

In the 1990s and 2000s, federal lawmakers and legislators in 20 states and the District of Columbia passed laws that allow for the detention of certain sex offenders designated as a “Sexually Violent Person” or, in some states, as a “Sexually Violent Predator” (SVP). These statutes allow for the confinement of individuals convicted of certain sexual offenses beyond the term of their criminal court-ordered incarceration (in juvenile detention, jail, or prison).1

This report explores the important implications SVP laws have for Black and sexual minority communities. We begin by providing an overview and historical context of SVP laws. We then use empirical evidence garnered from states where data could be gathered through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests or through collecting data available to the public on the internet. Using these data we (a) estimate the total population of civilly committed sex offenders in the United States, (b) assess disparities in administration of SVP detentions by looking at rates of civil commitment detention for Black and Hispanic versus White sexual offenders, and (c) assess disparities by victim’s sex to assess sexuality-related disparities in civil detentions.

The data analyzed in this report suggests:

Thousands of people are in civil commitment in the United States. There are over 6,300 people detained in the 20 state and federal civil commitment programs.

In most states, Black men were vastly overrepresented among the population of civilly committed persons. Based on data from 13 states with reliable data, Black residents faced a rate of SVP detention more than twice that of White residents: 7.72 per 100,000 Black residents as compared with 3.11 per 100,000 White residents aged sixteen or older.

Sexual minority men are disproportionately detained in sex offense civil commitment facilities. In the two states with reliable data about the sex of the victim, New York and Texas, men who had victims who were male were 2 to 3 times as likely to be civilly committed than men with only female victims. This trend was consistent for Black men, White men, and Hispanic men. These patterns suggest that gay/bisexual and other men who have sex with men (MSM) are seen as more violent, more dangerous or mentally ill, and more deserving commitment under SVP statutes as compared with heterosexuals.

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