Minnesota’s sex offender treatment program risks a federal court takeover that could be messy, expensive and lengthy unless the state takes steps to address legal and constitutional challenges, according to the chairman of a task force created by a federal judge to draft reforms.
Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson and James Rosenbaum, a retired federal judge who is vice chair, have been meeting with legislators for the past two weeks to outline the work of the task force and underscore the urgency of the federal court’s call for action.
The task force, appointed last fall, is searching for ways to protect public safety while finding less-restrictive options for offenders. The Minnesota Sex Offender Program, created in 1994 to house and treat dangerous individuals after their prison terms end, has grown to a population of 682 offenders and faces a court challenge claiming it amounts to an unconstitutional life sentence.
In an interview Monday, Magnuson took pains to say he is not advocating a position. But his decision to schedule a series of interviews this week is a signal he is seeking more attention for the issue at a time when legislators have shown few signs they want to touch the thorny issue of how to deal with sex offenders once they have completed prison terms and court-ordered treatment.
“I’ve heard it said we don’t need to do anything legislatively because the federal judge will fix the problems,” Magnuson said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. The federal court — any court, really — acts as a broad sword and not a scalpel.”
The current program has been a target of criticism for years, including a Legislative Auditor’s report in 2011. It found the program had expanded dramatically since its creation and that costs were out of control, in part because no one is ever released from what is supposed to be a treatment program. Several of the residents have filed a class-action suit claiming the program is unconstitutional. If the federal court were to take on direct oversight, it could force the state to make costly changes to bring it into compliance with the U.S. Constitution.
The task force will issue a full report with recommendations later this year, but an initial set of recommendations issued in December included a call for the Legislature to set up a network of less-secure treatment facilities around the state.
The state Department of Human Services, which oversees the sex-offender program, called for proposals in December to offer new approaches and will provide those to the Legislature within the next week. Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, a member of the task force, said she will introduce legislation in the next week or so. It will include changes in commitment practices and offer some less-restrictive treatment facilities.
Liebling said she’s not optimistic about much getting done this year because managing sex offenders is so volatile politically.
“We have to have bipartisan support to do something,” she said. “In the past it’s gotten demagogued, and that kills the ability to solve the problems we have.”