The firestorm ignited by the possible release of convicted child rapist Wayne Chapman has given lawmakers a chance to rethink and make long-overdue changes to state laws dealing with sexually dangerous people.
A bill filed by Governor Charlie Baker on June 6 aims at creating a more reliable process for dealing with those in that netherworld of the civilly committed — those who have completed their criminal sentences but who may well pose an ongoing danger to the public.
The 70-year-old Chapman, convicted of raping two boys in Lawrence in 1977 and, a year later, of sexual offenses against four other boys, remained in state custody — civilly committed as a sexually dangerous person — after his 30-year criminal sentence expired. Having been certified as no longer sexually dangerous by two psychologists earlier this year, Chapman was on the verge of release — much to the dismay of several victims — when he was charged with sexual misconduct (indecent exposure and gross lewd and lascivious behavior), while still in custody.
While any changes to the law won’t have an impact on the Chapman case, it certainly could provide a much-needed voice for victims and greater protections for the public in a process that for nearly a decade has basically left the decision-making on such releases to two expert examiners.
Back in 2009, the Supreme Judicial Court found, “The role of the qualified examiners within that [statutory] scheme persuades us that the Legislature intended them to serve in a capacity similar to that of a gatekeeper, deciding whether a person warrants commitment as a sexually dangerous person.” The ruling effectively negated any role by the existing (and, in that particular case, dissenting) community access board.
From then on, if two psychologists or psychiatrists agree an inmate is no longer dangerous, the doors of the Bridgewater Treatment Center (which as of last September housed 168 civilly committed individuals deemed sexually dangerous) open up.
Baker’s bill deals with the political fallout of the Chapman case by proposing a mandatory life sentence without parole for those convicted of the rape of two or more children or the rape of a child after being convicted of a previous sexual offense. It’s the sort of thing that grabs headlines and, yes, it’s hard to argue against tougher sentencing for child predators, even as mandatory sentences have generally fallen into disfavor.
The less obvious but far more important part of Baker’s bill is a revamping of the civil commitment release procedure. It sets up a five-member “sexual dangerousness review board” to be appointed by the commissioner of correction — each member must be a psychologist or psychiatrist “who meets the requirements of a qualified examiner.” At least two of the five members must be nonemployees of the correction department.
Any disagreement among the experts would be settled at a trial (by judge or jury) at which both the majority and minority opinions will be admissible. It also gives any victim the right to testify at such a court hearing.
The bill reconfigures and puts back the teeth in a board that was essentially emasculated by that 2009 SJC decision. But more than that, it provides a real layer of protection for the public that goes well beyond the latest cause célèbre.