ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) – New York’s highest court ruled Tuesday that the state wrongly confined convicted sex offenders in psychiatric facilities after their prison sentences ended.

In its 7-0 ruling, the Court of Appeals sent the cases of 12 men who had been held without hearings as psychiatric patients back to a lower court to quickly determine if each poses a danger to the public.

“We do not propose that these petitioners be released, nor do we propose to trump the interests of public safety. Rather, we recognize that a need for continued hospitalization may well exist,” Judge Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick wrote in the high court’s opinion.

The 12 unidentified men were among the first New York inmates involuntarily committed to mental hospitals after serving their sentences. Gov. George Pataki ordered the commitments in 2005 after the Legislature’s failure to approve a law preventing them from returning to communities where they could repeat their crimes.

Since September 2005, 787 inmates have been screened and 112 have been confined under Pataki’s order, the governor’s office said. Any of those confined who want to be released will now be entitled to a hearing, said Stephen Harkavy, deputy director of Mental Hygiene Legal Service, which sued on the convicts’ behalf.

The court’s ruling came down to which state law was used to confine the men to mental hospitals: the Correction Law governing psychiatric confinement of prison inmates or a Mental Hygiene Law governing civilians.

The 12 men – whose crimes included sodomizing and raping children – had been examined while still serving their sentences. Physicians from the Office of Mental Health found they suffered mental illnesses and posed threats of recommitting crimes if they didn’t receive in-patient psychiatric treatment.

A state Supreme Court justice ruled shortly after Pataki’s order that the state had violated Correction Law rules in transferring the inmates to psychiatric facilities. That ruling was later overturned on the grounds that it should have relied on the state law governing civilians.

The high court disagreed Tuesday and ordered the cases sent back to the lower court. It found that “in the absence of a clear legislative directive” the Correction Law is appropriate for inmates nearing release, while the civilian law applies after the inmate’s sentence expires for any further proceedings concerning the continued need for hospitalization.

Gov.-elect Eliot Spitzer, who argued the state’s case as attorney general, said the ruling “clearly demonstrates” the need for a law allowing civil confinement in such cases.

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