Village Times/Laura Ahearn

The mere mention of commitment conjures up 1972 images of Geraldo Rivera sneaking his camerainto Willowbrook, the state institution for the retarded in Staten Island where he filmed wardscrowded with disabled children, their feces smeared all over the walls. After

exposing this abuse and neglect, public outrage and subsequent judicial backing helped to beginthe process of deinstitutionalization in the United States.

Deinstitutionalization led to a flood of reforms nationwide concerning the housing and care ofthe mentally retarded and developmentally disabled. Today, most developmentally disabled Americanslive not in institutions but under supervision in small groups in regular neighborhoods and incommunity-based residences where their individual rights, respect and dignity can be cultivated andmaintained.

However, the lessons learned from Willowbrook and the progress made in deinstitutionalizationand community-based treatment must not cloud our consideration of a special kind of commitment:civil commitment for a specific group of the highest risk sexual predators who freely roam ourstreets, unwilling or unable to obtain proper treatment. This kind of predator commitment follows acriminal sentence and generally targets repeat sex offenders who then remain in a sexual predatortreatment facility until it is safe to release them to a less restrictive environment or into thecommunity.

Why is such commitment necessary?

On July 1, 1993, 19-year-old Kansas college student Stephanie Schmidt was working at a familyrestaurant in a college town but was not aware that her co-worker had recently received an earlyrelease from prison after serving 10 years of a 20 year sentence for raping a

20-year-old coed in 1983. At work, Stephanie complained of a sore throat and he offered to driveher home.

Twenty-seven days later the sexual predator confessed to brutally raping, sodomizing andmurdering Stephanie. Her parents, Gene and Peggy Schmidt, and Stephanie's sister Jennifersuccessfully lobbied and established a sexual predator law in Kansas. The Kansas civil commitmentlaw was the first to withstand constitutional muster and was upheld by the US Supreme Court in1997. Fourteen other states in the United States have sexual predator laws, but New York State isnot one of them.

Megan's Law provides us with one prevention tool - the right to be made aware of the presence ofdangerous known offenders in our community - but civil commitment could make sure that the mostdangerous of these will be confined and treated until they are determined not to be dangerous. Theenactment of such a law in New York State will probably require the construction of a specialfacility to house and treat these dangerous sexual predators.

This facility could also provide the vital information and potential innovations we need to morebroadly and more successfully treat sexual predators and sex offenders. Sex offender treatmentresearch is in its infancy and experts can only say that treatment reduces the number of sex crimesbut it is not known if the reduction is a function of the treatment program or of the increasedsupervision.

Civil commitment should be a legislative priority for all of our state lawmakers this sessionand most especially for ours locally because of an incident occurring about three months ago innorthern Brookhaven.

According to police records, on June 25, 2000, a two-time convicted felony sex offenderillegally entered two homes and in one attempted to have sexual contact with a sleeping teenagegirl. The intruder, who was residing in Centereach, is one of the 7,000 registered sex offenderswho has yet to be given a redo on his risk assessment so police could not notify the community ofhis presence. Although our local superintendents are proactive and share information, I am not surethat a community notification would have been enough to stop this predator.

What can stop sexual predators from further offenses is a sound civil commitment law in New YorkState where they will be committed to a special treatment facility until it is determined throughproceedings that they no longer pose a risk to public safety? For more

information call the Parents For Megan's Law hotline at (631) 698-2672 or visit our web site

Laura Ahearn, C.S.W. is the

executive director

of Parents For Megan's Law