by Bidish Sarma
*Sarma is an attorney who represents individuals sentenced to death and other harsh punishments including life without parole. He previously worked as a clinical teaching fellow at the Berkeley Law Death Penalty Clinic and staff attorney and Deputy Director of the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans.
The panoply of laws that govern the lives of individuals convicted of sex crimes after they have served their sentences is overwhelming. As this web of civil regulation has “grown into a byzantine code governing in minute details” how these people must live day-to-day, questions about these laws’ legitimacy and constitutionality are being litigated around the country. Several courts have struck down onerous and overbroad registration requirements that apply to offenders living in the community. Yet, questions persist, particularly where the government actually deprives individuals of their physical liberty. Civil commitment schemes specifically designed for sex offenders have been in vogue for more than two decades now. The U.S. Supreme Court approved some of these schemes as they took root, but it insisted that courts could bring constitutional scrutiny to bear if it turned out these schemes were punitive. The real test of that promise has now arrived.