Sex offenders sue over Iowa's civil commitment program

Nine men who were convicted of sex crimes, served their prison sentences and are now indefinitely confined to an Iowa mental health unit have filed a federal lawsuit against the state, claiming its civil commitment program is unconstitutional because it fails to offer adequate counseling and other services that would rehabilitate them enough for release.

The lawsuit, filed in September 2012 in federal court in Cedar Rapids, again highlights the difficult balance states must strike between keeping dangerous sexual predators off the streets and not violating their constitutional rights by imprisoning them longer than their court-mandated sentences. The men claim Iowa's five-phase program is undue punishment and inhumane treatment.

More than 5,000 people are believed to be civilly committed in such programs in 20 states and by the federal Bureau of Prisons. In the last year, federal judges in Minnesota and Missouri have ordered changes to those states' programs after finding them unconstitutional due to inadequate rehabilitation and proper assessment of risk of reoffending.

A similar challenge in North Dakota is likely to go to trial next year.

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In Iowa, U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett rejected the state's motion to dismiss the lawsuit in March, using "Hotel California" lyrics in his 50-page ruling to describe Iowa's Civil Commitment Unit for Sexual Offenders program: "You can check-out any time you like, But you can never leave!"

Bennett concluded the men — whom he described as like "the unlucky guest at the eponymous hotel" — have raised legitimate issues about treatment, staffing and funding for the program, which was enacted in 1998 and currently houses 113 men in a century-old former insane asylum.

Gretchen Witte Kraemer, an assistant Iowa attorney general, argued in court documents that the program offers due process that states such as Minnesota don't provide, noting that some of the plaintiffs have been released from the program.

By comparison, in Minnesota, a special judicial panel recently ordered the first unconditional release of an offender from the state's 20-plus-year-old program.

Bennett said the state's statistics suggest the men are slightly more likely to be released than they are to die in civil commitment.

Sioux City attorney Jay Denne, who's representing the men, declined to comment and has advised his clients not to discuss the case.

The lawsuit names Iowa Department of Human Services Director Charles Palmer and the director of the civil commitment program, Cory Turner. DHS spokeswoman Amy McCoy said the agency doesn't comment on ongoing litigation.

Iowa's program is designed to allow offenders to work through phases of treatment and behavior modification toward eventual release. Several plaintiffs have been housed there for more than a decade, never getting past the second phase, Bennett found.

Marvin Mead, 63, has been stuck at phase four for three years. His scheduled release was Oct. 1, 2008, but he remains in civil commitment. The Moline, Illinois, man has filed his own lawsuit, claiming the state-paid psychologists are not objective in their final evaluation.

"They're not doing a treatment evaluation, they're doing a forensic evaluation for the attorney general's office to keep us here as long as they can so we can't have hope that we'll ever be released," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Mead's record of rapes and burglaries stretch back decades. He said being raised in a dysfunctional family and enduring sexual abuse as a child left him with crazy thoughts. While in prison, he said he kicked drug addiction and became a Christian.

"I reflect on my past and it hurts. It hurts a lot but I can't change my past," he said. "I feel I don't want to treat another human being like I had. My value system is changed."

As in many states, the cost of Iowa's civil commitment program has soared. In 2005, it spent $3.9 million to house 51 patients. In the current fiscal year, which began in July, the budget has climbed to $10.19 million.

And when the men are released, it's difficult for the communities where they settle. A Davenport neighborhood protested when 69-year-old Ben Sanders was released from the civil commitment program in February.

"They're allowing the worst sexual offenders in the history of Iowa back into our communities and I'm sick and tired of it," Alderman Ray Ambrose said.

David Post, a retired Temple University law professor who has studied the issue, believes the federal court's job is to ensure constitutional rights are not infringed upon.

"The political process has problems with things like this," said "Nobody wins an election by saying I fought for the rights of sex offenders."