The way this state deals with sexual offenders, particularly those who prey on children, has been a problematic part of the law for decades. Now the Massachusetts Legislature has an opportunity to readjust the balance between psychology and public safety, between the role of experts and the pain of victims; they should grab it before the moment passes.
This particular moment is brought to us all courtesy of convicted serial child rapist Wayne Chapman and a recent decision by the state Supreme Judicial Court. The court ruled that the 71-year-old Chapman can no longer be held under a civil commitment order, after two mental health professionals ruled he is no longer sexually dangerous.
In doing so, the high court reaffirmed the principle that the two “qualified examiners” as the statute calls them — they are contractors independent of the corrections system — are, in fact, the “gatekeepers” in the process. It mattered not at all that three psychologists on a five-member Community Access Board ruled the other way.
Governor Charlie Baker and a number of state and law enforcement officials, including Attorney General Maura Healey, believe that system needs to change. Baker last week refiled a bill to make critical changes in the system, especially in the wake of the SJC’s Champan ruling.
Chapman was convicted of raping and sexually assaulting six boys in the 1970s; he served a 30-year prison sentence. Separately from the criminal case, Chapman was committed as a sexually dangerous person to the Massachusetts Treatment Center, a medium-security Department of Corrections facility in Bridgewater. The SJC decision notwithstanding, he remains at Bridgewater after being subsequently charged with indecent exposure and gross lewdness while at the facility.
Bridgewater houses about 150 others deemed sexually dangerous, many of whom have completed their criminal sentences but continue to be held under the civil commitment statute.
The civil commitment process generally begins with a recommendation by a district attorney to the superior court six months before the scheduled release of a prisoner convicted of a sexual offense. Baker’s bill would leave that part largely unchanged, but it would reform the decades-old system for determining when a person held under a civil commitment order can be released.
It would create a new five-member Sexual Dangerousness Review Board made up entirely of psychologists and psychiatrists, two of whom must be independent of the Corrections Department (nonemployees), to replace the current Community Access Board.
The two independent “qualified examiners” would continue to exist but, under the Baker bill, if any of the now seven mental-health experts consider someone still sexually dangerous, the case would go to trial.
“We need to act quickly to update our laws to better protect public safety and support victims who deserve to be heard,” Healey said in a statement. “This legislation makes meaningful changes to the process to prevent dangerous people from being released.”
The bill would also establish a new category of crime for those convicted of raping multiple children with force, which would carry a mandatory penalty of life without parole as would the rape of a child with force by anyone previously convicted of sexual offenses.
There are no guarantees in the criminal justice system, and no matter who’s in charge of civil commitment releases, there’s no magic wand that would separate those who will reoffend from those who will not. But a bill that would add at least one more layer of protection in the interest of public safety is one thing this Legislature can do.