By Guy Hamilton-Smith — In January, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James Bianco ruled that after spending nearly two decades detained by the state of California without trial, George Vasquez was a free man.
Unlike the 536,000 people held pretrial in the criminal justice system in America, Vasquez, 44, was not being held because he was accused of a crime.
Instead, Vasquez was locked up for 17 years out of fear that he might commit a crime.
Shortly before Vasquez was released after six years in prison for sex crimes in 2000, California prosecutors invoked a little-known, lesser-understood practice called civil commitment.
Used in at least twenty states, civil commitment allows a prosecutor to subject those convicted of sexual offenses (and sometimes, those with no conviction at all) to an indefinite period of civil punishment at the end of their criminal sentence. Civil commitment can mean years of additional detention under the guise of psychiatric treatment meant to reduce a person’s risk of committing another crime, with an often-illusory promise of freedom.