A HISTORY OF THE TEXAS CIVIL COMMITMENT PROGRAM
A HISTORY OF THE TEXAS CIVIL COMMITMENT PROGRAM
Derek W. Logue of OnceFallen.com, Written for use by txfacts.org
Completion Date: 27 July 2022
“Civil Commitment of Sex Offenders Pretends Prisoners Are Patients.” – Headline by Jacob Sollum article in Reason Magazine
Sex offense registries and civil commitment laws were created in the 1930s and 1940s during the previous wave of heightened sex panics that experts deem the “sexual psychopath era,” but fell out of favor in the 1960s and 1970s as states shifted to treatment-oriented programs. It is unclear if any specific case, political statement, or court ruling had inspired Texas to pass sex offense civil commitment laws, but in the 1980s and 1990s, a wave of sex offense panics, largely fueled by false claims of Satanic Ritual Abuse and the sensationalized media coverage of rare but tragic child murders (such as Adam Walsh) sparked a renewed interest in public sex offense registries and civil commitment statutes. Washington State passed both a sex offense registry and modern civil commitment in 1990, which in turn provided a blueprint for other states seeking to pass civil commitment laws.
The evolution of the Texas civil commitment program has been more complex than civil commitment programs of other states. The Texas program initially separated from the other civil commitment states by offering outpatient treatment. The outpatient program initially seemed like a cost-effective and humane way to balance the rights of persons convicted of sexual offenses with a perceived need for public safety measures.
It is often said that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The road to the Texas civil commitment program became riddled with numerous controversies such as the ease at which outpatient registrants were returned to prison for minor infractions, the challenges of finding housing for those in the outpatient program, and scandals perpetrated those in charge of the program. Actions taken by the Texas legislature were heavy-handed and upended the lives of hundreds of outpatient registrants and their families.
Eventually, Texas had created a lockdown facility just like every other state with a civil commitment program. Unlike the civil commitment programs in other states, the Texas civil commitment program does not even bother pretending that they are anything but a prison. Civilly committed patients are represented by attorneys in commitment hearings. The Texas Civil Commitment Center in Littlefield was built to be used as a prison. The “patients” are treated as prisoners, are called “inmates”, and program rule violations are criminal charges. (A change in Texas law in 2015 removed felony charges for most, but not all, rule violations.) If the Texas civil commitment looks like a prison and it acts like a prison, calls their wards “inmates,” detains their wards in a prison, and their detainees are charged with crimes for rules violations, then folks, that is a prison.
This article is intended to provide an overview of the history of the Texas civil commitment program as used specifically against persons convicted of sexual offenses as well as a summary of key controversies and ongoing failures of this controversial program.
This is a summary of key events in the evolution of the Texas Civil Commitment Program:
- 1983: Interagency Council on Sex Offender Treatment (ICSOT) was established
- 1989: The ICSOT established a registry of approved treatment providers
- 1993: The Texas Legislature establishes the three-member “Council on Sex Offender Treatment” (CSOT) to replace the ICSOT
- 1995: Texas legislature established a public sex offense registry (“Ashley’s Law”); civil commitment law introduced but fails.
- 1997: Florence Shapiro and John Whitmore tried and failed to pass civil commitment law
- October 1998: CSOT began plans for a civil commitment program
- November 9th, 1998: Shapiro introduced SB 29, a civil commitment bill
- March 11th, 1999: Shapiro introduced SB 1224, a bill requiring registration of civilly committed persons
- May 27th, 1999: Using suspension of the rules, JE “Buster” Brown introduced SR 1159 to add Shapiro’s civil commitment bill to SB 365
- June 19, 1999: Governor George W. Bush signed SB 365, which included the establishment of an “outpatient” civil commitment program.
- September 1st, 1999: SB 365 took effect
- May 20th, 2005: In re Commitment of Fisher, 164 S.W.3d 637 (Tex. 2005) The Texas Supreme Court upheld constitutionality of the Texas civil commitment program
- June 17, 2005: Governor Rick Perry signed SB 912 (Shapiro), requiring those subject to civil commitment to stay only in approved state-run halfway houses
- 2007: SB 1951 (Wentworth and Williams) established the special “435th District Court” to handle civil commitment cases; HB 2034 (England) and SB 1198 (Shapiro) formally established a “Special Prosecution Unit” (SPU) to prosecute civil commitment cases
- June 5, 2008: Governor Rick Perry appointed Michael Seiler as judge for the 435th District Court
- June 7th, 2011: Governor Rick Perry signed bill establishing the “Office for Violent Sex Offender Management” (OVSOM) to take over CSOT operations
- 2012-2014: The OVSOM made arrangements with Avalon and GEO Group (private prison companies) to house committed persons
- May 1st, 2014: Allison Taylor, head of OVSOM, resigned after scandals involving the placement of civilly committed persons without proper notification; Marsha McLane became the new head of OVSOM.
- January 2015: Judge Michael Seiler approved first release of civilly committed person to release into community.
- January 2015: State audit found the OVSOM was in “disarray” and could not account for spending and records of committed persons.
- February 24th, 2015: SB 746 (Whitmire and Perry) introduced to reform issues with OVSOM
- April 24th, 2015: Judge Michael Seiler was publicly reprimanded for showing extreme prejudice and unprofessional conduct in numerous civil commitment cases.
- June 17th, 2015: Governor Greg Abbot signed SB 746 into law. SB 746 renamed the OVSOM as the “Texas Civil Commitment Office” (TCCO), eliminated felony offenses for most infractions of civil commitment rules, and authorized a lockdown facility to house the civil commitment program.
- July 31st, 2015: The TCCO announced a contract with private prison company “Correct Care Solutions” to run a new lockdown civil commitment facility in Littlefield.
- September 1st, 2015: The civil commitment lockdown facility in Littlefield was officially opened. Civilly committed persons were rounded up and shipped to the Littlefield facility.
- February 16th, 2016: Michael Seiler resigned from the bench at the 435th Judicial Court, as he was being investigated for misusing juror information for his reelection campaign.
- 2017: SB 613 (85(R), 2017) passed, requiring those convicted of sex crimes and who suffer from mental illness or was considered not guilty by reason of insanity to be detained indefinitely until mentally stable to participate in the civil commitment program
- 2019: The private company “Management and Training Corporation” took over operations of the Littlefield facility; MTC removes treatment language from internal memos and refers to the Littlefield detainees as “inmates”
- April 9th, 2022: Members of two groups dedicate to reforming/abolishing the controversial program, Texas Against Civil Commitment (TACC) and Families Against Committing Texans Standup (FACTS), hosted a protest in front of the Littlefield facility.