CIVIL COMMITMENT

The formal control of deviant behavior is not limited to criminal sanctions. There is another form of social control in the form of a civil commitment to a mental institution (Forst, 1978). Statutes governing civil commitment exist in every state in America, although with some variations in the criteria for involuntary hospitalization (Boyd-Caine, 2009).

Civil commitment is a noncriminal process that commits disabled or otherwise dependent individuals, without their consent, to an institution for care, treatment, or custody, rather than for punishment. It is based on two legal principles: (1) the right and responsibility of the state to assume guardianship over individuals suffering from some disability and (2) police power within constitutional limitations to take the necessary steps to protect society Procedurally, civil commitment is different from criminal commitment. In civil commitment, certain procedural safeguards are not available, such as a right to a trial by jury, which involves confronting witnesses against the defendant, and to avoid testifying against oneself. Moreover, the formal moral condemnation of the community is not an issue in civil commitment. Forst (1978:3) notes,

This situation may arise if the behavior is intentional but not morally blameworthy, as in a civil suit for damages, or if the behavior would have been morally blameworthy, but because of mental impairment, criminal culpability is either mitigated or negated. In the latter instance, the civil issue is not the person's behavior but his status.

In this view, a heroin addict, a mental defective, or a sex offender is not held morally responsible for these actions. The general consensus is that the individual deserves treatment, not punishment, even though the treatment may entail the deprivation of the individual’s liberty in a mental institution without due process.

In the United States, about 1 in 12 people will spend some part of his or her life in a mental institution. On any given day of the year, nearly half a million Americans are in confinement in mental wards; in fact, nearly half of all hospital beds in the United States are occupied by people suffering from mental disorders. But civil commitment for mental illness and incompetence is only one of the many types of civil commitments used to control deviant behavior (Levine, 2009). Other types are the incarceration ofjuveniles in training schools or detention homes; the commitment of chronic alcoholics and alcohol- related offenders; the commitment of drug addicts; and the institutionalization, through the civil law, of sex offenders and those who are considered “dangerous” to either themselves or the community as initially perceived by family members or the authorities (Dallaire et al., 2000). Martin L. Forst (1978:7) contends that the various types of civil commitments “constitute one of the primary forms of social control through law in American society.” He further notes that this form of social control is more extensive than the social control exercised by the traditional criminal commitment.

The use of civil commitment as a form of social control is not limited to adults (Baughman, 2015). Difficult, disruptive, disobedient adolescents—the ones who may have been sent to military schools or juvenile detention centers—are sometimes placed in mental hospitals. Some of these adolescents are seriously disturbed, but others are simply rebellious teenagers fighting with their parents over anything—from the music they enjoy to the romantic partners they choose. Regardless of the reason, they are often held behind locked doors, virtually without civil rights. In the name of therapy, they are subjected to a strict regimen of rewards and punishments. These teenagers are often diagnosed with common behavioral problems, such as “conduct disorder,” “oppositional defiant disorder,” and the popular “adolescent adjustment reaction.” These terms sound impressive, but they cover a variety of teenage activities: running away, aggression, persistent opposition to parental values and rules, and engaging in “excessive” sexual activity (usually as defined by the parent). Not surprisingly, many adolescents are committed to mental hospitals not because they are troubled but because they are troubling to someone else (Darnton, 1989).

In the legal arena, the causes of criminal behavior and the responsibility for such behavior lie within the individual. But in a legal system that posits individual causation, complications arise in attempts to control individuals who are threatening yet have broken no law (Peay, 2005). One way to control such individuals is to define their conduct as a mental disorder. Greenaway and Brickey (1978:139) state, “This definition has the combined effect of imputing irrationality to the behavior and providing for the control of the individual through ostensibly benign, but coercive psychiatric intervention.” Thus, it is not surprising to find that many state mental hospitals include people who have committed trivial misdemeanors or who have not been convicted of any crime at all, but have been sent there for “observation.” The police and courts may refer individuals whose behavior appears odd for psychiatric examination, and if they are found to be “insane,” they can be confined in a mental hospital against their will for long periods, in some cases for life (Levine, 2009).

There are diverse explanations for the increased use of civil commitment as a mechanism of social control. As Forst (1978:9-10) once observed,

There are those (the positive criminologists) who view the increase as a beneficial shift from the traditional emphasis on punishing people to rehabilitating them. Another explanation for the increased use of civil commitments (the divestment of the criminal law) is that the civil commitment serves as a substitute for, or a supplement to, the criminal law in order to socially control undesirable forms of behavior.

The use of civil commitment is not without criticisms (Baughman, 2015). Some critics advocate the abolition of all civil commitment laws because the constitutional rights of the individuals subjected to them are violated, despite the number of laws designed to protect the rights of the mentally ill. Others oppose it because it allows people to avoid the punishment they deserve. Although the issue remains controversial, the use of civil commitment as a form of social control will certainly continue.

 
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