This week, we posted on our newswire about a class action filed by individuals who were civilly confined by the New Jersey Department of Human Services. Cases like this rarely cross our desks, so we decided to take a closer look. And here’s the rundown.
What’s the Lawsuit All About?
This lawsuit was filed by (and on behalf of) those civilly detained by the Department of Human Services pursuant to the New Jersey Sexually Violent Predator Act. The case alleges that the detainees’ rights under the U.S. Constitution are being violated regarding the mental health treatment they are legally supposed to receive.
I know, I know. It sounds complicated, but it’s not. Here’s the breakdown…
New Jersey has a law called the Sexually Violent Predator Act. This law says that sex offenders who show signs of mental illness and who appear likely to commit future offenses can be confined for a further amount of time after they’ve served their time in jail. The purpose of this confinement, the law says, is to provide the individual with the mental health treatment they need to return to society.
The lawsuit states, however, that the care these detainees are receiving is “punitive and constitutionally inadequate.” It claims violations of the detainees’ First and Fourth Amendment rights under the “due process” clause and lodges some serious claims against the state’s Commissioner of the Department of Human Services and Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, among others.
What Are Some of These Claims?
The suit’s overarching claim is that the detainees aren’t receiving adequate treatment in the Special Treatment Unit (STU) of Avenel’s Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center.
The plaintiffs say they’re being “warehoused,” “held indefinitely,” “punished” and “retaliated against,” rather than getting the treatment needed for their perceived mental disabilities. The suit even claims that their living conditions are more restrictive than those they faced while incarcerated prior to their civil detainment, calling the Special Treatment Unit “a dumping ground for anyone whose sentence they want to extend.”
To make matters worse, one plaintiff alleges that he served the maximum time on his sentence – ten years – only to find out the day before his release that he would be transferred to the STU, where he has spent the last 14 years. The suit claims that only “a handful” of detainees have been released from the STU. In fact, according to the suit, the defendants “erect one arbitrary barrier after another” to prevent the detainees from getting to the point where they would be considered for discharge, including requirements ordering them to “confess to crimes they did not commit.”
When it comes to specifics as far as the STU’s care, the suit claims that the defendants failed to:
- Properly train the staff
- Provide meaningful, coherent and individualized treatment plans for the detainees
- Create and implement proper procedures for detainees to express their grievances
- Guarantee patient/therapist confidentiality
- Provide detainees with opportunities to engage in religious, vocational, educational and recreational activities
- Permit reasonably frequent family visits or quick access to telephones in cases of family emergencies
The suit says this failure is “a substantial departure from accepted professional judgment, practice or standards.”
What’s the Lawsuit Hoping to Accomplish?
Plaintiffs request, among other things, that:
- Detainees have the right to refuse treatment without being punished for doing so
- An order be issued to ensure the plaintiffs and class members are not denied employment, property, etc. for refusing treatment
- Protection from retaliation in the form of a temporary restraining order or injunction
- Proper training for Department of Corrections personnel
- A Bill of Rights be created for patients
Have There Been Any Cases Like This Filed Before?
There have been, in fact. Reportedly, approximately 16 states have laws similar to New Jersey’s SVPA, which may be among the country’s strictest sexual offender laws. And, in 2009, a class action was filed in Missouri by detainees at the Sex Offender Rehabilitation and Treatment Services (SORTS) saying that they too were being “warehoused” in “a prison disguised as a mental health hospital,” according to a post by the Daily Journal Online.
So, you can see why we picked this one out of the dozens of cases that get filed per day. There were no claims of unpaid wages or unsolicited text messages here. No violations of debt collection laws or automakers selling defective vehicles. This is a case about civil rights – and we will be sure to watch as it makes its way through the courts.