ALBANY — New York’s top court upheld a law Monday that allows the state to keep sex offenders confined under some circumstances even after they have completed their sentences.
In three decisions handed down Monday, the state Court of Appeals said the law didn’t violate due process guarantees, and did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
While upholding the law, the seven-judge panel was sharply divided on each case.
The judges also warned the cases exposed "troubling issues concerning the fairness and effectiveness" of the state’s oversight of sex offenders and might require further legislation.
At issue is a law former Gov. George Pataki and state legislators approved 20 years ago.
The "Sexual Assault Reform Act" imposed, among other things, mandatory restrictions on the movements of those convicted of the most serious sex offender crimes. Upon release, the offender must find suitable housing that is more than 1,000 feet from any school grounds, among other conditions.
In two cases that were combined into one court decision, inmates were kept in prison because they hadn’t secured appropriate housing — even though they had been set to be released on parole. In each case, the inmate was on a waiting list for housing that would comply with the law's requirements.
In a 5-2 decision, Judge Eugene Fahey wrote for the majority: "We conclude that there was no constitutional violation."
In the third, an inmate was detained in a "residential treatment facility" within a prison even though he had completed his sentence.
Further, the inmate contended state law clearly limited his post-sentence confinement to six months — and he had been detained much longer because he couldn’t find appropriate housing.
In a 4-3 decision, Judge Leslie Stein said the question was whether separate laws authorize the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to keep inmates in treatment facilities beyond six months under such circumstances.
"We conclude that it does," Stein wrote.
Fahey, joining with the liberal wing of the court in dissenting, said the majority was "rewriting" state law. He said the majority basically was giving the state corrections department, "permission to ignore the six-month limitation" in the law.
Stein countered that the interpretation of the law urged by the minority would "undercut" laws overseeing sex offenders and lead to "absurd results."
Either corrections officials "would be required to approve residences that do not comply with SARA or the [Department of Social Services] would be required to ignore" corrections department authority in approving post-release residences for offenders, Stein wrote.