John Fabian


The Adam Walsh Act (AWA) became law on July 27, 2006, and is the most expansive and punitive sex offender law ever initiated by the federal government. One aspect of the statute, and the topic of this article, is the civil commitment of federal sex offenders. The AWA civil commitment law has its roots in prior U.S. Supreme Court cases including Kansas v. Hendricks and Kansas v. Crane. While the federal commitment statute is similar to traditional state commitment laws, the AWA does not provide for a finding of "likely" to commit sex offenses. Rather, the statute defines a "sexually dangerous person" as having "serious difficulty refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released." Assessing the likelihood of recidivism and volitional impairments leading to sexual recidivism in light of the AWA and state commitment statutes are critical determinations. The accuracy, validity, and interrater reliability of the measurement of volitional impairment is considerably lacking among experts and within the empirical literature of sex offending in general. Similarly, examining the legal terms "mental illness, abnormality, or disorder" under the AWA will entail a thoughtful application of clinical psychiatric diagnoses recognized in the mental health profession. Many of these psychiatric diagnoses (primarily paraphilias) utilized in legal commitment proceedings are debated by adversarial expert witnesses in these hearings. As the AWA pertains to federal sex offenders, the expert witness must consider their differences from state sex offenders, as many of the former group are more likely to have histories of online solicitation and child pornography possession in their criminal backgrounds.