Iowa’s Civil Commitment of Sex Offenders Survives Court Challenge

Sep 1, 2018

A nearly six-year-old lawsuit challenging Iowa’s program for keeping sex offenders confined after they serve their prison terms has been dismissed by a federal judge in Sioux City.  

U.S. District Court Judge Mark Bennett ruled against patients in the Civil Commitment Unit for Sexual Offenders, or CCUSO, housed at the Mental Health Institute in  Cherokee.  

An offender is assigned to the program after a civil court deems him or her to be a risk to society.    But there have been civil rights challenges here and elsewhere.

"I have an obligation to follow... precedent." -Judge Mark Bennett

In their lawsuit, patients being held in the Iowa unit argued their confinement  unconstitutionally “shocked the conscience,” that it is punitive, and is more restrictive than necessary.  

Judge Bennett earlier denied a summary judgment in the case.     But in his ruling issued on August 17th, he changed course.

“Subsequent developments have changed my conclusion regarding whether this case can be allowed to proceed,” Bennett wrote.  

First, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals approved Minnesota’s civil commitment program, and Bennett concluded that Iowa’s program is superior to the one in Minnesota.     Also, expert witnesses submitted testimony showing that Iowa’s program has improved.

"It appears the CCUSO has made great strides." -Expert witness Robin J. Wilson

“It appears the CCUSO has made great strides toward ensuring adequate treatment for its patient population,” wrote expert witness Robin J. Wilson.

“The experts specifically found that although CCUSO has issues-including the use of behavioral reports to impact treatment progression-Iowa’s civil commitment is in line both with national averages and contemporary research regarding the effective treatment of sex offenders,” Bennett wrote.

But Bennett dismissed the case with some reluctance, having disagreed with the 8th Circuit Court ruling in the Minnesota case.

“Like all federal trial court judges, I have an obligation to follow circuit precedent,” Bennett wrote, “even when I strongly disagree with it.”

Named in the suit were former Department of Human Services Director Charles Palmer and CCUSO Superintendent Cory Turner.

Bennett urged CCUSO to consider recommendations that came from the expert testimony.   That includes giving patients realistic estimates regarding the timeline for treatment and forming an independent panel to review CCUSO policies.

“Those suggestions are low-cost ways to continue the improvements that CCUSO has made during the course of this litigation,” Bennett wrote.

Superintendent Turner did not immediately return a call for comment.