University of Southern California

Beyond No-Man’s Land: Psychiatry’s Imprecision Revealed by Its Critique of SVP Statutes as Applied to Pedophilia

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Note by Jennifer Jason
From Volume 83, Number 6 (September, 2010)

The field of psychiatry has identified a problem with the law, its source, and suggested a solution. The problem is “legislators . . . us[ing] psychiatric commitment [of sex offenders] to effect nonmedical societal ends.” The source is U.S. Supreme Court decisions allowing legislatures to use definitions of mental illness that have no basis in psychiatry: “As a consequence of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that are written ambiguously and tentatively, the bright line separating . . . [the legal conception of] mental disorder [(for the purposes of civilly committing sex offenders under sexually violent predator statutes)] from ordinary criminal behavior is difficult to draw and tests a no-man’s land between psychiatry and the law.”

The solution is “[g]reater clarity and standardization . . . com[ing] from both sides: the legalists who interpret the law and the clinicians who apply and work under it.” A close analysis of the psychiatric critique of these statutes that allow for the civil commitment of sex offenders reveals psychiatry’s own imprecision within the bounds of psychiatry and in the domain of the overlap between psychiatry and the law.

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