Few things frighten the public more than violent sexual offenses, especially ones against the young. Since 1990, not content with jailing the culprits, about 15 states (including Washington, Kansas, Wisconsin and California) have enacted statutes authorizing potentially lifelong “civil” commitment for inmates on the eve of release. Proposed in a number of other jurisdictions, such legislation has proved popular.

Critics, however, warn that these so-called sexually violent predator laws constitute a covert form of added imprisonment — a perversion of the mental health profession that, in the words of Yale professor Howard Zonana, transforms psychiatrists “from healers to jailers.”

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