This month in 2007, then Attorney General Andrew Cuomo was tasked with breathing working life into New York’s Civil Management statute. With it, New York joined 20 other states in taking one of the most controversial and delicate legal steps possible in a liberal democracy- that of extending incarceration or strict probation for individuals with mental conditions that drive them to commit sex crimes.
The cocktail party description of the law is fairly easy to deliver. Most candidates are men nearing release from prison for a previous sex conviction. The state Office of Mental Health has the onerous job of examining every one of them (thousands of men are released every year from NYS corrections for sex offenses), and they decide if the person qualifies as having a “mental abnormality.” Basically, that’s a mental illness or disorder that drives one to commit sex offenses. For the few who make that cut, the Attorney General has the job of proving 1) that the person indeed suffers, and 2) that he needs to be either confined in a state hospital or supervised in the community. Ideally, a person remains subject to one or the other until a judge decides that he’s no longer a danger.
New York is both massive and diverse, and characterizing it as left-leaning or “defendant friendly” is an oversimplification. Nevertheless it’s not the most conservative of states, and there was and continues to be tremendous philosophical opposition to the law. Some claim it’s no more than additional punishment dressed up like treatment. Detractors point to its high costs, but more basically to what they see as the fundamental unfairness of telling a person who has done his time that, in fact, he’s got more time to do, albeit in a hospital environment rather than a prison. They also question whether a mental abnormality could ever be treated to the satisfaction of a judge with the responsibility of turning an offender back to the community. To them, it looks like a convenient life sentence waiting to happen.
These arguments deserve consideration, and I thought them through when I had the chance to serve in the Sex Offender Management Unit from its infancy four years ago this month. Civil management of offenders, when it’s done right, isn’t about right or wrong. It’s about ill or not ill, and for a lifelong prosecutor that can be a challenging mental transition to make. Good and evil, the bookends of Judeo-Christian thought, may be unsatisfyingly simple to some philosophers, but they’re the compass of most U.S. prosecutors. And they give way to something more complex in the civil management realm. In the case of a person who is driven to rape, what drives him really isn’t his fault. But it’s not society’s either, and civil management is as much a quarantine function as it is anything else.
Of course, 1000 fair questions are begged here, from what “driven” really means to the very nature of free will. Regardless, what concerned me was less the idea of the law than the process under which it would take shape. There are states where civil commitment has failed miserably because it was political red meat in a ‘get tough on crime’ atmosphere, but never supported well enough to be true to its stated goals.
There was no telling how it would play out in New York. A few respected colleagues warned me it was a bad career move, that the law was flawed in its inception and nearly impossible to enforce fairly or effectively. In the end, though, I bet Cuomo’s office would be a good steward and that New York, despite and because of its big government nature, would be a place where the tricky business of civil management would at least be properly supported and also be done as honestly and fairly as humanly possible.
I was right.
Kevin Gagan, the former Manhattan ADA who took the reins out of the gate and brought me into the unit, remains one of the very best people I’ve ever worked with or for. He’s a hard charger but fair, deeply decent, and very smart. He also had a great nose for talent and assembled a team of litigators across 40,000 square miles that I view today as the single best collection of trial lawyers I’ve known personally or professionally. Our partners, OMH and Parole, worked honorably beside us and put heroic effort into maintaining not just the appearance but the reality of the ideals behind the law. Our legal adversaries played their part and fought doggedly to protect and ensure due process for their clients, some of the most powerless and despised people imaginable. The nightmare scenarios of massive lock-ups and unending commitments haven’t happened, and for the most part the process works as it’s supposed to.
It isn’t perfect and it remains a work in progress. But when I consider that I took a chance with how my office and the rest of the state would implement this difficult, controversial social policy, I marvel at how lucky I got. Kevin has since moved on to higher office in state government, but the bureau he formed continues to thrive under solid new management and the leadership of a new AG. My friends and colleagues there continue their mission with as much integrity and competence as anyone could ask for.
The idea remains controversial and rightly so. It involves the most daunting legal questions we face: The rightness, let alone reliability, of predicting future crimes; the correct balance- there is none more crucial- between individual liberty and public safety; the inner-workings of the human mind. New York hasn’t perfected a response to any of these. But it had faith in its own institutions and the safety of the public at heart when it took the leap to answer them. It’s done damn well so far. Happy Birthday.