A state task force is considering dramatic changes to Minnesota’s controversial system of committing the worst sex offenders to indefinite high-security confinement, a practice that critics say results in de-facto life sentences for offenders who have already served their prison time.
The 15-person panel is discussing the creation of a new, central state court with broad authority to determine how sex offenders are selected for civil commitment, as well as when they might be released.
The draft recommendations would call on the Legislature to adopt a higher standard of proof before locking away sex offenders and the creation of a state panel of professional experts to screen commitments of sex offenders.
“This [panel] is much more robust than what we have now,” task force co-chairman Eric Magnuson said Wednesday night at a meeting where the panel reviewed a draft of the recommendations.
The task force, appointed by state Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, is expected to deliver its recommendations by Dec. 1.
Commitments to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program have soared since 2003, when its rules were changed in the wake of the kidnapping and murder of college student Dru Sjodin by a convicted sex offender, and Minnesota now has the highest number of civilly committed offenders per capita among the 20 states with such programs. The program provides group therapy to 698 committed offenders at high-security facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter.
The program is under challenge in a federal class-action lawsuit by a group of offenders who say it amounts to lifetime confinement without appropriate treatment.
Proponents of the proposed reforms say they would make the commitment process less susceptible to political pressure by giving more authority to state-appointed experts instead of local elected officials. County judges and prosecutors sometimes fear the political fallout of releasing convicted rapists and child molesters, even if they have already completed prison sentences and the risk of reoffending may be low.
Program started in 1994
Recently, an offender won a provisional discharge from the program and is currently living in the community under close supervision. However, no offender has ever been permanently released from the program since its creation in 1994.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say the [program] is a de-facto life sentence,” said Eric Janus, president and dean of the William Mitchell College of Law and a member of the task force. “What we’re saying is, before we spend a huge amount of money to lock people up, we better be really sure that these people need this super level of protection.”
In 2011, Legislative Auditor James Nobles found that state law makes it easier to commit sex offenders, and also makes it harder for offenders to gain release, than laws in other states. For instance, Minnesota does not allow offenders to request a jury trial for a civil commitment proceeding, while at least 15 of the other 19 states that have a civil commitment process allow jury trials.
The draft recommendations propose that the Legislature modify current law to provide for “regular periodic review” of commitment cases, without requiring the offender to request that review. They also include a proposal to require a higher standard of proof in committing sex offenders. Currently, state law allows offenders to be confined based on “clear and convincing” evidence; the recommendations propose a standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” similar to that used in criminal trials.
“The system is currently designed in such a way that it incentivizes people to keep [sex offenders] locked up forever,” said Daniel Gustafson, the lead court-appointed attorney in the class-action lawsuit. The recommendations, he said, “are designed to make it procedurally as protective as we can because the liberties at stake are so important.”