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The Dirtiest Little Secret of Texas: Our Civil Commitment Law for Sex Offenders Raises Double Jeopardy Concerns

Chris Perri

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Recently, I read this article in the Fort Worth Star Telegram about Texas’ civil commitment law with respect to sex offenders and was left shocked.

While the article mainly concerns a technical change in the law regarding venue for civil commitment trials, hidden towards the end is the unveiling of Texas’ dirty little secret: Since 1998, more than 350 individuals have been civilly committed to a sex-offender treatment facility in Littlefield, Texas, following their completion of lengthy prison sentences. None have been released upon successful completion of the program, and nearly half were sent back to prison for violations of the treatment program’s rules.

For example, a defendant who is convicted of a sex offense might serve 25 years in prison. As his release date approaches, he discovers that the State of Texas wants him to remain incarcerated after the completion of his long sentence. As a result, a new “civil commitment” trial occurs in which the State seeks to prove that he “has a behavioral abnormality that makes him likely to engage in predatory acts of sexual violence.” This seems like a pretty easy burden to prove since the defendant has previously been convicted of a sex offense.

While this procedure might smack of double jeopardy, Tarrant County prosecutor Bill Vassar defends it by arguing: “During his 25 year imprisonment, [the defendant] never had sex offender treatment from a licensed professional. The jury’s verdict ensures that he will get the treatment he needs, and guarantees the citizens of Texas that he will be monitored 24 hours a day.”

This argument exposes two fundamental problems. First, any prosecutor should be ashamed of a criminal justice system that sends a sex offender to a penitentiary that fails to provide any treatment to that individual prior to release. Right there, Mr. Vassar has unwittingly indicted our entire prison system for ineptitude. Second, Mr. Vassar’s argument that the defendant “will get the treatment he needs” from the Littlefield treatment facility is disproved by the evidence that no one has ever been rehabilitated in the program’s 18 years of operation. Leave it to the government to equate success with this zero percent rehabilitation rate.

I sympathize with victims of sex offenses, and I do believe that offenders need to be punished. However, the proper forum for vindicating victims’ rights and punishing offenders is the criminal process. Once an offender has served his/her sentence, our Double Jeopardy Clause forbids further punishment for that offense. In effect, Texas’ civil commitment law allows Texas to circumvent the Constitution by imprisoning a person a second time for the crime. To continually operate such a “treatment” facility for 18 years despite its zero-percent success rate seems to be a brazen misuse of government resources. Moreover, Texans should be offended by the government’s attempt to disguise the civil commitment facility’s true purpose as rehabilitation. This current system serves no one: not the criminal, not the victim, and certainly not the taxpayer. Littlefield is the island where we send the undesirables to never be heard from again.  

Let’s start with some honesty, and then engage in a legitimate debate about whether the Constitution forbids this type of institution as an unconstitutional subsequent punishment.

For more information on this civil commitment trend for sex offenders, check out the Stateman’s recent write-up here.