Judge's order could help calm controversy and aid reform.
When people who have trouble trusting one another need to find agreement in a high-stakes dispute, it can help to have a neutral party intervene, establish some ground rules and require them to work together. Happily, something like that happened this month when a federal judge ordered Minnesota officials to explore options for overdue reforms to one of the state's most perplexing policy conundrums -- the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).
On Aug. 15, Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan ordered Commissioner of Human Services Lucinda Jesson to appoint an advisory panel made up of lawmakers, law-enforcement and criminal-justice professionals, mental-health experts and victim advocates. Its mission: To recommend changes in law and policy that would help Minnesota repair a needed but troubled program that costs too much, is growing too fast and offends basic constitutional values.
Jesson welcomes the court's order, and the appointment process is underway. She says the task force will hold its inaugural meeting Oct. 11. Its initial recommendations could reach the Legislature next year.
MSOP's story goes back to the mid-1990s, when Minnesota, along with 20 other states, expanded its use of civil commitment to continue incarcerating "sexually dangerous persons" who had completed their prison terms for sex crimes. The practice, though popular, raised legal concerns from the start, as it appears to punish people for crimes they may commit in the future or to retroactively change the laws that applied when they committed past crimes. State and federal courts upheld sex offender commitments as constitutional -- but only so long as their sincere goal was treatment and eventual release.
MSOP and its costs grew, but slowly until 2003, when the appalling rape-murder of college student Dru Sjodin fueled an already overheated and accusatory political debate about the program. Soon many more offenders were being committed and all thought of moving any "patients" toward release ended. MSOP's population soared, and it continues to.
It is more than 600 today, giving Minnesota, per capita, the largest commitment program in the United States, from which only two offenders have been provisionally released. And unlike other states, including Wisconsin, Minnesota has no effective mechanism for diverting or releasing less-dangerous offenders into supervision programs that are less restrictive than its prison-like treatment centers while still safeguarding the public.
Judge Boylan's task force order comes as settlement negotiations continue in a federal class-action lawsuit brought by MSOP prisoner/patients. They argue that the program is inconsistent and arbitrary in deciding who gets committed and that its treatment and release efforts are at best inadequate. It is hard to translate the judge's instructions that the state formally examine alternatives as anything other than a unsubtle signal -- that if the state doesn't start taking these matters seriously, the federal courts soon will.
Fortunately, progress has been made toward a more constructive, depoliticized search for remedies. Jesson and the Dayton administration have advanced the discussion; legislators on both sides of the aisle, notably including such Republicans as Sen. Warren Limmer and Rep. Tony Cornish, have responded. A bipartisan effort is absolutely critical, because policymakers will have to be assured that their work to reform MSOP won't be turned against them as a political weapon.
Let's be frank: Reducing restrictions on sex offenders will not sail to enactment on a wave of populist enthusiasm.
MSOP offenders are a frightening bunch. Many are right where they belong. But not all. Change is overdue, and Minnesota's leaders should seize the opportunity to come together and face facts that Judge Boylan has provided.
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