The first report from a new task force reviewing Minnesota's costly, potentially unconstitutional sex offender program is remarkable less for its initial recommendation than for the strong signal it sends about moving forward with reforms and taking seriously the threat of a federal takeover of the program.
Legislators need to heed the task force's call to action and follow its lead in keeping the debate over this controversial issue calm and constructive.
The report from the Sex Offender Civil Commitment Task Force, which is led by retired state Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, came out last week. The group's 20 members deserve credit for wading into the charged debate over the state's civil commitment program, which detains sex offenders for "treatment" long after their prison sentences have ended.
About 600 offenders are currently held in prison-like facilities in the state, with very few ever being released. The Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) has become one of the largest per capita in the nation. The program is not only expensive -- civil commitment is about three times more expensive than incarcerating offenders -- but it has long raised constitutionality concerns.
The state now faces a federal class-action lawsuit filed by offenders in Minnesota who have argued that commitment decisions are arbitrary and that remote prospects for release amount to a life sentence. Last August, a federal judge lent credibility to the constitutionality questions when he ordered the state to pursue reforms. The task force is a key part of these efforts, and its members clearly take seriously the potential of federal involvement.
The group faced a tight timeframe for issuing its first report. It understandably has not yet offered solutions to the program's most vexing challenge: deciding which offenders in the program could be released into a less restrictive, less costly setting. "We realize our work is not done,'' Magnuson said in a letter accompanying the report.
The task force did, however, sensibly focus on one reform that is a key piece of the puzzle if further changes are to occur. Taking a cue from a 2011 Office of the Legislative Auditor's report, it recommended that Minnesota create and fund a regional network of alternative treatment facilities.
A number of other states operate centers like this for sex offenders. It's a sensible proposal that would move the program away from its problematic all-or-nothing approach. Right now, the program either commits an offender for years in costly, high-security facilities or it releases them, often with too little supervision.
The proposed regional centers would offer a less restrictive, less costly option for offenders deemed less risky -- such as elderly offenders. Public safety could be enhanced by this option. Greater numbers of offenders could be supervised if regional centers become a reality. Right now, resources are instead directed at keeping a limited number of offenders in high-cost, high-security facilities.
For years, state policymakers who feared being labeled soft on crime have made changes like this virtually untouchable, even as it became common knowledge that the MSOP program was broken and unaffordable. What's striking about the task force report is that it doesn't waste any time debating whether reforms are necessary.
Instead, its decisive language makes clear that the issue is how best to reform MSOP. That's a milestone shift in this long, bitter debate and a reason for confidence that balanced solutions will soon be found.