Alabama is doubling down on controversial laws. Having made headlines over its recent abortion ban, the state now has a new polarizing policy: mandatory chemical castration for some convicted sex offenders.
Chemical castration, which inhibits the production of testosterone in males, has been an internationally controversial issue for many years. While it’s raised questions about human rights and ethics, chemical castration isn’t as foreign a policy as one might think – even in the U.S. – and it’s held steady support in a world where lawmakers and laymen alike struggle to agree on how to penalize those convicted of sex crimes.
About Alabama’s Castration Law
Alabama’s chemical castration law stems from HB 379, a measure sponsored by Republican Representative Stephen Hurst and passed by both houses of the state’s Legislature in May. The bill was signed into law on Monday, June 10, 2019 by Governor Kay Ivey.
Here are a few key points about the “Yellowhammer State’s” new castration law:
- The Bill – HB 379 requires inmates convicted of child molestation – defined by Alabama law as a sex offense against a child under 13 – to begin chemical castration as a condition of their parole. The law will apply to those convicted of sex crimes after September 1st.
- The Medication – The law requires convicted individuals in this category to take medication (in the form of a series of injections or tablets) which contains medroxyprogesterone acetate, a chemical that in effect blocks testosterone in men. Most offenders will pay for their treatment, which will be administered by the state’s Health Department.
- The Penalties – Those who stop taking the drugs while on supervised release without a Judge’s permission violate their parole, and can be charged with a Class C Felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison under Alabama law.
- Duration of Treatment – According to lawmakers, the testosterone-suppressing drugs don’t permanently castrate men. However, Alabama law requires applicable convicted sex offenders to take the medication at least 1 month prior to their release date, and until a judge, if ever, rules it’s no longer necessary.
Humane or Not Humane, That is the Question
Arguments behind HB 379, like other castration laws, say it protects the public and children from convicted child sex offenders by removing their sexual desire and ability to sexually perform. Opponents, including the ACLU, say it walks a fine line on serious issues related to involuntary medical treatment and laws of informed consent, is ineffective from a policy perspective, and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment that brings the justice a step back.
Though opponents say Alabama’s new law is Unconstitutional, it’s not the only one on the books. In fact, several states have or have had some form of chemical castration policies in their statutes, including:
- Texas, which allows for chemical castration of sex offenders, but does not make it mandatory;
- Michigan, which passed a law similar to Alabama’s (later overturned in 1984 on appeal); and
- California, which passed legislation in 2010 requiring some repeat sex offenders to undergo castration treatment after a second offense.
Debates over chemical castration have long existed throughout history, the U.S., and the world. Apart from raising foundational questions related to human rights and the belief that medical decisions are matters reserved for only patients and their providers, the law shines a spotlight on crime and punishment – not only in terms of what’s appropriate or “humane,” but also how states punish those convicted of more “serious” crimes.
Sex Offender Castration: A Lesson in Crime & Punishment
As most people know, criminal convictions come with consequences. Our firm sees that every day in local, state, and federal courts. While there are some criminalized acts with which people may disagree (for example, marijuana possession), there are others many do believe pose risks to their communities and societies, and which have long been, and will likely remain, what our society deems a “crime.”
Chief among these are crimes like murder, rape, and other sex offenses – which not only compel a type of moral response, but have also historically been prohibited by governments and democratic societies. What often comes into question in these situations – even when “we” as a society collectively agree about something being a crime worthy of punishment – is what that punishment should be.
For murder, we’ve come a long way from setting people on fire or sending them to the electric chair. Today, the death penalty sparks very complex discussions over the justification of capital punishment, but very few actual executions. Many states have abolished the death penalty entirely, and many others with formal laws don’t tend to carry it out.
Even legal scholars like the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (who himself upheld the Constitutionality of capital punishment during his tenure) have stated the death penalty likely has little future in America, and that it “wouldn’t be surpris[ing]” if it were struck down. There may be many reasons for this, but some of the largest have to do with shifting views, or what’s called the “evolving standards of decency” in a maturing society.
Such evolving standards are indicative in many of our laws, and they’re why most states differentiate between different degrees of murder (i.e. premeditation and intent), and why many have charges like manslaughter. It’s also why states like Ohio have sex offense tiers. In many cases, such distinctions help defendants with unique and / or mitigating circumstances avoid the harshest forms of punishment, and the opportunity to benefit from discretion.
For sex crimes, things can be a bit more difficult. The nature of these allegations and how they’re viewed can make it less likely they’ll be explored for what makes them distinct or different, and more likely that they’ll incur severe penalties for the accused. For the same reasons many still support the death penalty, they also support the implementation of tougher penalties when crimes are egregious and offensive in nature – especially for sex crimes.
Viewed from this perspective, Alabama’s chemical castration law is not as earth-shattering as some headlines may make it seem. States and the people who live there have and continue to arrive at similar decisions, though others may not. Still, there are important questions as to whether such a penalty, which mandates medical treatment, is appropriate, humane, or Unconstitutional under the prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment” of the 8th Amendment, which also bars excessive bail and excessive fines.
These are questions with passionate debate and supporting evidence from both sides that often extend beyond the law into personal beliefs. As with many controversial legal issues, they’re also questions that only time will tell.
Sex Crimes & Legal Representation
If anything impartial can be said about Alabama’s law, it is that it’s a prime example of how sex crimes are very difficult, high-emotion cases. When preconceived biases loom large and even allegations alone can harm lives and reputations, individuals charged with sex offenses face uphill battles in exercising their right to representation, not to mention what can be life-altering or life-long penalties. That’s true in a range of sex crime cases, as well as for Title IX proceedings over alleged sexual misconduct.
Experienced defense attorneys who understand the stakes in complex criminal cases, and the importance of holding our justice system to the rules and foundational procedures to which it’s bound, can make a large difference for those who stand accused.