Civil Commitment: The New Double Jeopardy

by Vins
Published: Updated:

After completion of a prison sentence, individuals considered a danger to society can continue to be held indefinitely under what is called “civil commitment.” Civil commitment, which has been instituted in at least 20 states, is a legal process by which criminals convicted of sexual assaults, and shown to have a  mental illness, are legally declared a danger to society and confined indefinitely in treatment facilities following their release from prison.

After  prison, individuals who are considered a threat to society are presented before a judge who makes the final decision of whether there is enough probable evidence for a civil commitment trial. Additionally, individuals sometimes receive treatment while awaiting trial and the information disclosed in confidentiality during these sessions has been used against them in the trial.

While in civil commitment, former prisoners are supposed to receive mental health treatment and regular evaluations. Individuals can to be released once it is clear they are no longer a threat to society.

Sarah Lazare of In These Times reports that after talking to numerous individuals with first-hand knowledge, including those held in civil commitment, this process does the opposite of what it has set forth to do. People confined under civil commitment statutes report enduring verbal abuse, inadequate care for their mental health, and an extension of the prison environments they came from with little rehabilitation. Moreover, the tests and evaluation tools used to assess whether an individual’s progress through their mental health treatment—such as polygraph “lie detectors” – are not “universally accepted as sound science.”

Those incarcerated as a result of civil commitment find themselves doing more time for the same crime. Lazare found that at one civil commitment treatment facility in Illinois, Rushville, 288 people – or half of the people being held in the institution—had been held for more than 10 years, including 76 people in custody at Rushville since it opened in 2006.

Although there has been some reporting in local media outlets around the country of attempts to reform civil commitment procedures, coverage of this story in the corporate press has been woefully inadequate as a whole.


Sarah Lazare, “Inside the Endless Nightmare of Indefinite Detention Under “Civil Commitment,” In These Times, August 19, 2020,

Student Researcher: Selamawit Raheal Hezchias (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Peter Phillips (Sonoma State University)