1st Cir: No Constitutional Violations at Mass. Sex Offender Treatment Center - U.S. First Circuit
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1st Cir: No Constitutional Violations at Mass. Sex Offender Treatment Center

In Massachusetts, sexually dangerous persons (SDPs), sex offenders who have been ordered to civil commitment, reside in the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. In 1974, following lawsuits alleging "medieval" conditions at the Center, a district count entered consent decrees ordering the Center to shape up. In 1999, the district court concluded that the problems had been remedied and terminated the consent decrees, but still made the Center subject to a settlement plan.

In 2001, Jeffrey Healey brought suit to enforce the provisions of the plan and to allege constitutional violations. After more litigation and two trials, the district court found that it had breached the terms of the plan by failing to provide "adequate pharmacological evaluation and treatment." This appeal followed, where the Massachusetts Department of Corrections (DOC) wanted the determination in Healey's favor reversed, along with a determination that the settlement plan wasn't an enforceable order.

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Not an Order

The First Circuit reversed the district court's finding that the settlement plan was an enforceable order. The district court never conditioned vacating the consent decree on approval of the plan as some kind of injunction, nor did the parties ever agree that the plan was such that failing to comply would result in contempt charges. Though the district court judge exhorted the DOC to adhere to the plan, the First Circuit noted that his "comments were meant to counsel, not dictate."

The plan was also not an enforceable order because judicial economy counsels against maintaining jurisdiction forever. And even if that were the court's intention, the court said, the Supreme Court has said that courts must be explicit if they are going to continue to maintain jurisdiction even after ending a consent decree. As a result, Healey couldn't bring an action to enforce the terms of the plan, because there was nothing to enforce.

No Due Process Violations

While Healey challenged the Center's treatment as "constitutionally inadequate," the First Circuit did not find any constitutional violations. While there was no community access program, as required by state law and the now-defunct settlement plan, that didn't rise to a constitutional violation; the Constitution doesn't require community access programs. Nor was the court inclined to question prison officials' wisdom as to what was necessary for security and safety.

Given that the settlement plan no longer carries the force of law, it's worth wondering why the district court judge who terminated the consent decree spent so much time lecturing the DOC on making sure that it complied the terms of the plan. If the plan was never intended to be enforceable, then what's the point?

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