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Decision-making about volitional impairment in the sexual predator commitment context

Cynthia Calkins Mercado, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


The Kansas v. Hendricks (1997) decision, in which the Supreme Court authorized post-sentence civil commitment for certain sex offenders, appeared to have been constitutionally legitimized by limiting the class of offenders eligible for this special form of civil commitment to those who are “unable to control” their dangerousness. Nowhere in the available record, however, did the Court elucidate what they meant by this long-confused notion of volitional impairment. Instead, the Court appeared to rely largely upon Hendricks' own testimony (concerning loss of control when under stress) and prior criminal history (including repeated acts of sexual violence) to support the conclusion that he suffered such volitional impairment. Nor did the Supreme Court in Kansas v. Crane (2002), in holding that something less than an absolute lack of control is required, describe the types of impairment that may make it “particularly difficult to control” behavior. ^ Given the impact an ill-defined notion may have on sexual predator decision-making, this study sought to examine factors that legal professionals (n = 43), psychologists (n = 40), and mock jurors (n = 76) deem most relevant to a determination of sex offender volitional impairment. Participants, who were randomly assigned to a sexual predator commitment or an insanity hearing context, read a series of 16 vignettes which described a pedophilic offender and included every combination of the four control variables manipulated (use of substances, verbal statement regarding inability to control conduct, planning of crime, and prior history). After reading the vignettes, participants made judgments about ability to control conduct, mental disorder, and likelihood of future violence. ^ Results suggest that participants across groups considered verbalization of control, history of sexual violence, and the context of the hearing as highly relevant to determinations of volitional impairment, though results suggest uncertainty with regard to the importance of planning. Implications of these findings are discussed and directions for future research are suggested. ^

Subject Area

Psychology, Clinical

Recommended Citation

Mercado, Cynthia Calkins, "Decision-making about volitional impairment in the sexual predator commitment context" (2003). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3104621.