For decades we Minnesotans have known — or anyhow been pleased to believe — that government here works better than it does in most places. Public life is cleaner in these parts; public policy is more effective, farsighted and accountable; public services contribute to a higher quality of life.
Injustice never festers here, the way it does in a place like Ferguson, Mo., with officials turning deaf ears to pleas for reform.
Given the flagrant corruption, budgetary malpractice and filthy politics on display in many parts of America, Minnesota government no doubt remains above the average.
But does that mean the performance of the public sector here is good enough — especially where it matters most, in those situations where public officials wield fearsome powers over individuals or bear critical responsibility for protecting them? Or are we simply too easily persuaded that all is well?
An accumulating batch of maddening news stories give a person pause — especially an old-timer who has been around long enough to know how interminably some problems have lingered.
February ended with big news of a swelling state budget surplus — almost $2 billion extra in taxpayers’ money over the next two years for political peacocks in St. Paul to boast and squabble about.
But the Star Tribune’s front pages as February gave way to March featured other headlines that actually deserve more attention. In the space of two days they included:
• “Testimony chips away at MSOP credibility,”
• “State law broken in abuse case” and
• “Report scolds U on research ethics.”
Each of these examples is a complex story, and each involves quite distinct issues. Yet each also comes down to something simple and troubling — a failure by Minnesota public officials to do right by powerless people who are at their mercy and who lack political clout, despite years of warnings and complaints about each failure in question.
MSOP, the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, is a 22-year-old “treatment program” that keeps sex offenders locked up indefinitely, long after they’ve served their prison time. Minnesota isn’t alone in having such a program, but it stands out for lacking any serious process for “patients” to ever get better and get out.
From the beginning, MSOP’s justice and constitutionality have been questioned. This winter it’s effectively on trial in federal court in St. Paul.
One typical dispatch from the courtroom described a program whose “top administrators … admitted they don’t know if men confined for years … still deserve to be in custody.” (Emphasis added.)
Well, whatever. The politically safe position is not to fret too much (or at all) about doing justice to sex offenders.
But how about abused and endangered children? There is evidence that Minnesota government doesn’t do right by them, either. And these concerns, too, go back decades.
A recently released review panel report confirmed that Pope County officials and the state’s child protection system failed inexcusably to intervene to save a repeatedly abused 4-year-old, Eric Dean, before he was murdered by his stepmother in 2013.
Eric’s story, revealed last year by Star Tribune reporter Brandon Stahl, inspired formation of a gubernatorial task force that has recommended reforms in Minnesota’s child protection system and laws.
We can hope for improvement. But don’t take it for granted. Minnesota’s child protection system has long been questioned for being too slow and skittish about stepping in on endangered children’s behalf.
The one thing vulnerable children have in common with sex offenders is that they are largely voiceless — at least compared with the deafening politics surrounding “parental rights” and racial disparities in our the legal systems.
Yet another largely invisible population is psychiatric patients recruited as research subjects at a powerful institution like the University of Minnesota. An independent review released Feb. 27 reported that the university’s safeguards against such people being coerced or manipulated into becoming guinea pigs are “inconsistent and inadequate.”
Rather like MSOP and Minnesota’s child protection system, the U has been rebuffing criticism for years over these matters, particularly in connection with the case of Dan Markingson, a mentally ill young man who committed suicide in 2004 while involved in a U drug study. University officials have swept concerns aside, insisting the matter has been thoroughly investigated and the U completed cleared.
But critics have persisted, and have been joined by former Gov. Arne Carlson and by the U’s Faculty Senate, which requested the new and critical review of overall research practices (it did not investigate the Markingson case itself). The legislative auditor’s office is also looking into these issues, and its preliminary conclusions are due this month.
The good news in all this, no doubt, is that finally, in each of these cases, scrutiny and, at least potentially, reform could be coming. It has taken too long — it has been too easy for politicians and bureaucrats over many years to stiff-arm critics and stick with what’s popular or preferred by powerful interests. In each case, tireless advocates for change — some prominent, some not — and dogged journalists deserve credit for continuing to object and ask questions.
And the pileup of these stories in recent weeks and months shows how badly the efforts of such troublemakers are needed, even here in self-satisfied Minnesota.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.