Beyond The Carceral Logic of Civil Commitment: PART 1

The Next System Project: Toshio Meronek and Erica R. Meiners; November 10, 2017

A key component of the current system is its reliance on imprisonment as a response to behaviors and populations which are understood as sources of actual or potential harm. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, this carceral response seems to multiply and perpetuate harm rather than reducing it.  As we envision a path towards a next system in which communities are able to flourish instead of being torn apart, it is imperative to tackle the question of harm, and dismantle the instincts that lead us too often to reinforce its logic through the very measures we take to respond to it. In this essay for The Next System Project, Erica Meiners and Toshio Meronek rise to this demand by challenging the way our current system, behind the walls of “civil commitment” facilities, perpetuates the carceral logic of harm in its response to the sexual abuse of children, and ask us to imagine what principles would truly underly a system in which “there are no more victims.”  As they write,  “While perhaps not intuitive, asking the hardest questions first—like what to do with society’s so-called ‘worst of the worst’—might be the best place to start building structures that achieve real justice rather than continue to inflict administrative violence.”

 —The Next System Project


Over the last few years, calls for prison and policing reform have surfaced in diverse arenas. As #BlackLivesMatter telegraphed the racialized violence of policing, presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton was compelled to explain her role in the passage of the “tough on crime” 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that helped build the world’s largest carceral, or punitive state. Criminal justice reform is in the air. Republican New Gingrich argued for (some) sentencing reform while Barack Obama became the first sitting President to visit a federal prison.

Yet, if history teaches us anything, reforms—to release the “non violent” offenders, to recruit more women to be police officers, to create prisons expressly for juveniles or the mentally ill, or to install surveillance cameras on police cars—often expand, not contract, our prison nation. These reforms also suggest that with these tweaks current institutions could function as the basis for a fair and just world. Yet we know that our expanding “law and order” systems—longer sentences, enhanced criminalization, super maximum prisons—have never produced public safety for all, though many of us accept them as the only mechanisms available.

For many, this abolition politics, or shrinking and transforming the carceral sphere seems daunting. How to imagine public safety outside of policing? How to feel safe without prisons or surveillance cameras or public sex offender registries?

Building alternatives to address interpersonal harm, creating mechanisms to hold people who harm accountable, and dismantling the world’s largest prison and policing nation, will not be achieved by tinkering around the edges. Even if all the “nons,” or those with non-sexual, non-violent and non-serious convictions, were released, the US would still harbor a massive prison system that reproduces the harm it purports to deter, and would still lock up society’s most marginalized.

While perhaps not intuitive, asking the hardest questions first—like what to do with society’s so-called “worst of the worst”—might be the best place to start building structures that reduce or eliminate harm and create accountability, rather than continue to inflict administrative violence.

Just as body cameras haven’t eliminated police brutality, the increasingly complex web of post-conviction punishments for those convicted of sex offenses have neither reduced nor deterred child sexual violence. A deep, thoughtful look at society’s handling of those convicted for harming children, who have been “assessed” as persistent risks to themselves and people living outside prison walls, might generate positive ways of dealing with forms of harm considered as “less severe.”

Perhaps the least well-known—and most problematic—carceral response to addressing people marked as the worst of the worst is the post-prison system for people with sex offense convictions called “civil commitment.” Those confined in civil commitment are often in limbo for years, sometimes decades, with indefinite sentences in which state officials decide, often arbitrarily and inconsistently, the point at which someone is no longer a danger to the public. With treatment tactics considered by many people in and out of the medical field as torturous and ineffective, these facilities often have high turnover rate for medical staff, as evidenced by high vacancy rates for well-paying jobs, as well as complaints from people in civil commitment facilities who desire treatment but don’t have consistent access (or in some cases, no access at all, only waitlists). Civil commitment is undoubtedly a place in desperate need of new imaginations of justice.

Addressing the “worst of the worst” requires seriously grappling with sexual violence that targets some of our nation’s most vulnerable. What really works to reduce or eliminate sexual violence? Yes, many of the people interviewed for this piece caused extreme harm to others. Yet, the system meant to correct those harms has worked to generate more injury, and left unexcavated the question of how we reduce and eliminate sexual violence against those most susceptible to that violence, such as children. Fortunately, there are people working together on blueprints for better—if imperfect and messy—practices of accountability and transformation.

What does society do with the population considered the least human after they’ve been punished? As criticisms of the prison industrial complex grow, our definitions for “treatment” and “rehabilitation” within the complex demand investigation. “The most unpopular civil rights issue of our time,” as a therapist who has worked with both civilly committed men and their victims called it, could be the catalyst to explode one of the least visible cornerstones of the US justice system.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: