Today, the Supreme Court decided that sex offenders can be kept in prison “indefinitely”—-regardless of the length of their sentences—-if they are considered still “sexually dangerous.” Our government reserves the right to exert complete control over the lives of sex offenders, possibly until they die. Is that enough time to rehabilitate them?

The background on the ruling, via the Associated Press:

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that federal officials can indefinitely hold inmates considered “sexually dangerous” after their prison terms are complete.

By a 7-2 vote, the high court reversed a lower court decision that said Congress overstepped its authority in allowing indefinite detentions of considered “sexually dangerous.”

“The statute is a ‘necessary and proper’ means of exercising the federal authority that permits Congress to create federal criminal laws, to punish their violation, to imprison violators, to provide appropriately for those imprisoned and to maintain the security of those who are not imprisoned by who may be affected by the federal imprisonment of others,” said Justice Stephen Breyer, writing the majority opinion.

President George W. Bush in 2006 signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which authorized the civil commitment of sexually dangerous federal inmates.

The act, named after the son of “America’s Most Wanted” television host John Walsh, was challenged by four men who served prison terms ranging from three to eight years for possession of child pornography or sexual abuse of a minor. Their confinement was supposed to end more than two years ago, but prison officials said there would be a risk of sexually violent conduct or child molestation if they were released.

If our government is going to keep these offenders under lock and key until they’re no longer “sexually dangerous,” it better be doing everything in its power to attempt to make them safe. But if we put all our efforts toward rehabilitation, can we actually stop sex offenders from abusing again?

This 2007 New York Times story on “relapse prevention” rehabilitation programs for sex offenders suggests that the answer is “maybe.” Take the case of Bill Price, a former Sunday-school-teaching pedophile who has admitted to abusing 21 children. Price’s rehabilitation plan is targeted at reducing all risk of offending again, once he’s back in society:

A requirement of his treatment, the plan catalogs on five single-spaced pages the tactics Mr. Price has learned to stop molesting.

There are 42 so far, including avoiding places where children congregate, abstaining from alcohol, shunning the Internet and sniffing ammonia whenever he has a deviant thought.

“It was just like a hunt for me,” Mr. Price, 59, a former Sunday school teacher, said of his sexual crimes. “I kept choosing children because they were easier prey; they were easier to deal with than women.”

But will the 42-step plan work? History says probably not:

Treatment plans like Mr. Price’s, known as relapse prevention, have been a cornerstone of efforts to reform sex offenders for the past 20 years. Yet there is no convincing evidence that the approach works, or that others do either.

Similar to aspects of Alcoholics Anonymous, relapse prevention has sex offenders own up to wrongdoing and resign themselves to a lifelong day-to-day struggle with temptation. But one of the few authoritative studies of the method, conducted in California from 1985 to 2001, found that those who entered relapse prevention treatment were slightly more likely to offend again than those who got no therapy at all.

A relapse prevention plan like Price’s isn’t the only approach to rehabilitating sex offenders, but no other approach has been found any more successful—-except, of course, for keeping them locked up. For a few reasons, sex offender rehabilitation is still very much an evolving discipline.  Some look down upon allocating resources to helping people who abuse children; since it can be difficult to get pedophiles to talk, the sample groups here can be very small; some offenders will simply play along in order to get out of jail. One lawyer interviewed in the Times story refers to sex offenders undergoing rehabilitation programs as “living experiments.”

So far, the gains that have been made in the field of sex offender rehabilitation have not been very encouraging. One study showed that after five years, 15 percent of released sex offenders would offend again. Medical methods of treatment—-like chemical castration—-have an undetermined effect on re-offending rates. And methods used to figure out which convicts are likely to offend again—-like polygraph tests and “penile plethysmograph” tests—-are inconclusive.

Particularly in light of the Supreme Court ruling, it’s clear that a great deal more research needs to be done. In the meantime, the best way we know to stop re-offending may actually be waiting a very long time: “research has also suggested that even lifelong offenders tend to stop, for the most part, by the time they reach their 70s.”

Photo via laurapadgett, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0