The question of whether it's right to confine sex offenders to mental institutions after they've completed their prison sentences is an argument only beginning in Western New York with the first recently completed local trial on the matter.
It will become more commonplace in the coming years. The Buffalo office of the state attorney general has 59 such cases in various stages of preparedness.
On Nov. 14, a State Supreme Court jury in Lockport found Daniel Gierszewski, 63, of Buffalo, had a mental abnormality as defined in a state law passed last year. That gives Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. the authority to commit him to a mental institution. Although cases are to be reviewed annually and treatment is offered, there's a very real chance that Gierszewski might be in the institution for life.
His criminal record is a grim one. In 1980, he was charged with raping and sodomizing a 15-year-old girl, and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors. He served a three-year probation term. In 1983, he picked up two girls, ages 13 and 16, while cruising for prostitutes, and tied them up and sexually assaulted them in the back of his van. He served three years in prison for that. And in 1993, he fondled a 10-year-old girl between the legs in the candy aisle of a North Tonawanda department store. The next year, he was convicted of that and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Gierszewski's prison time was to have run out Feb. 21, but instead the state Office of Mental Health decided after an interview by a psychologist that Gierszewski has a mental abnormality that makes him likely to commit more sex crimes. Instead of being freed, he was transferred to a mental institution to await trial for confinement.
As the prosecutor said, "There's no nicotine patch you can put on your arm that makes you stop craving young girls." But civil confinement wasn't even thought of when Gierszewski received his long prison term in 1994. Also, he was let out on parole in September 2007, because the Mental Health people thought then that he did not have a mental abnormality.
He was re-evaluated, and sent back to prison, only after using a computer in a public library. He wasn't supposed to be using the Internet.
Gierszewski's attorney says the convicted sex offender "paid his debt to society," and blames the jury's fear for its verdict.
Another attorney points out that the state doesn't try to commit anyone else to a mental institution after their prison sentence expires, not even killers. And the state Division of Criminal Justice Services has a Web site (http://criminaljustice.state.ny.us/nsor/som_mythsandfacts.htm) that says sex offenders tend to reoffend less often than other types of criminals.
The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the concept of civil confinement laws.
Is it right to lock up sex criminals, and only sex criminals, after they've served their sentences, because they might commit another crime if let out?
- Thomas J. Prohaska