(CN) – The government can indefinitely hold inmates considered “sexually dangerous,” even after their prison terms are complete, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The justices voted 7-2 to reverse the 4th Circuit’s ruling that Congress overstepped its authority in passing the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which authorizes the civil commitment of sexually dangerous federal prisoners.
Signed by George W. Bush in 2006, the law was meant to protect the public from offenders who, if released, have “serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation.”
“The statute is a ‘necessary and proper means of exercising the federal authority that permits Congress to create federal criminal laws, to punish their violation, to imprison violators, and to provide appropriately for those imprisoned and to maintain the security of those who are not imprisoned but may be affected by federal imprisonment of others,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote.
Under the law, if the attorney general presents “clear and convincing” evidence that a detainee is sexually dangerous, the inmate can be held until he is no longer a risk to others.
The law was challenged by five prisoners considered sexually dangerous, four of whom were detained more than two years after their sentences were complete. Four had been labeled sexually dangerous less than one month before their scheduled releases, and the fifth was deemed dangerous the day he completed his 96-month sentence.
Solicitor General Elena Kagan, President Obama’s nominee to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, successfully argued the government’s case. She said the government has a duty to release criminals responsibly, particularly dangerous criminals who would likely reoffend due to a mental illness.
Breyer agreed that the federal civil-commitment statute “is a reasonably adapted and narrowly tailored means of pursuing the government’s legitimate interest as a federal custodian in the responsible administration of its prison system.”
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, saying Congress can only pass laws executing federal powers listed in the Constitution.
“The government identifies no specific enumerated power or powers as a constitutional predicate for [the civil-commitment law], and none are readily discernable,” he wrote. Caring for the mentally ill and protecting the public from dangerous detainees “are among the numerous powers that remain with the States,” he said.
Justice Antonin Scalia joined the dissent in part.
Last year, Chief Justice John Roberts blocked the release of up to 77 sex offenders at a federal prison in North Carolina, allowing time for the high court to consider the government’s appeal.
The high court’s ruling does not address other provisions of the Act, including its establishment of a national sex offender registry and stronger child pornography protections.