There is one crime that murderers and the public can agree deserves to be punished and that is the sexual abuse of children. Pedophiles are the one group of criminals that everyone thinks is especially heinous. However, how far is too far to get these abusers off the street and away from children?
There are constant stings done by law enforcement to catch pedophiles by pretending to be children online and getting the offender to meet them in person. Upon their arrest, this often leads to the discovery of the possession of child pornography by the offender which is a crime. For first time offenders, this carries a maximum federal sentence of 10 years but for repeat offenders, the mandatory minimum sentence is 10 years. Of course, there are other charges that can be added such as the distribution of child pornography if these exploitive images were sent to anyone, which carries a sentence of 5-20 years. The sentences for people who actually produce child pornography and sexually abuse or molest children are much longer because they have committed the act. However, what is to be said of the offenders that are just viewing the material, what if once they released they will act on their urges and actually harm a child?
To answer this question, 16 states have passed civil confinement laws for sexual offenders once their prison terms have ended. This means the offenders are released from prison then moved to psychiatric facilities for treatment because they pose a danger to society. This includes offenders who have not yet acted on their perverse thoughts by actually going near a child. The American Psychiatric Association has claimed that these civil commitments of pedophiles are not only a violation of civil liberties, but “a distortion of the purpose of the psychiatric hospital which are there to provide care for patients, not to incarcerate or punish,” (Sharfstein 1). Furthermore, “an involuntary hospital stay must include that the person be mentally ill, that the person is dangerous because of his or her illness, and the person is capable of being treated. Many sexual offenders do not have clear-cut illnesses that can be improved with psychiatric treatment,” (Sharfstein 1).
This raises the question of what to do with sexual offenders after their prison term has ended, especially the ones who have not committed an act against a child yet. The act of viewing a child being abused is terrible and they are in some way contributing to the child’s harm, but there is a distinction between this and actually sexually abusing the child themself. In these psychiatric facilities, they try to treat the offenders with psychotherapy which aims to help the patient recognize and overcome rationalizations for their behavior. However, one offender who was committed to one of these hospitals after his term for possession of child pornography ended described his experience. He detailed how in their individual group therapy sessions they were told to make lists of the children they abused and they weren’t allowed to leave until they wrote enough so they would make up names.
Pedophilia is a serious and harmful disorder, and I think the abuse of children is the most horrifying and appalling crime. Pedophiles do deserve to be locked up, but is it fair for them to be locked up indefinitely after they have served their sentences? No. Do I want pedophiles roaming the streets? No. However, the implications of these civil commitments must be considered. If they begin locking up pedophiles, a hated group in society, and violating their rights, it will set a precedent to begin doing so with other marginalized groups.