Cost drives new plan on treating sex offenders

  • Article by: PAUL MCENROE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 19, 2012 - 9:55 PM

Citing the high cost of indefinite civil commitment for Minnesota sex offenders, two influential lawmakers will propose a shift to longer prison terms, coupled with intensive -- but cheaper -- treatment.

In addition, the legislators plan to propose a state mental health review court, a move aimed to standardize the civil commitment process for sex offenders and reduce political pressures on local prosecutors and judges, which can be intense in rural communities.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said Thursday that he and Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, are in the final stages of drafting the legislation. He said a team of legislators has spent the past four months reviewing the public safety and civil liberties issues surrounding the more than 600 patients being held indefinitely in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) at Moose Lake and St. Peter.

"The cost is just tremendous, more than $330 a day, as opposed to keeping these offenders in a corrections setting for about $70 a day," Limmer said. "We intend to stay focused on safety, on cost and on the constitutional issues, [but] holding these individuals longer in prison makes sense rather than paying the high cost of civil commitment.''

Limmer and Cornish, chairman of the public safety committees in the Senate and House, respectively, attended a packed forum at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson and Eric Janus, dean and president at William Mitchell, hosted the symposium.

Last spring, Legislative Auditor James Nobles found that the cost of treating Minnesota's sex offenders could be drastically reduced by creating alternative, highly supervised programs similar to those adopted in New York, Texas and Wisconsin. Minnesota is one of 20 states with civil commitment programs, and in 2010 had the nation's highest number of committed sex offenders per capita. "Without releases, Minnesota is susceptible to lawsuits challenging the adequacy of the treatment program," Nobles found.

Jesson has found herself caught in a paradoxical, emotionally charged debate over how to protect public safety while honoring the rights of offenders who have completed treatment requirements.

In her opening remarks, Jesson said she was just days into her job last winter when a reporter called her to discuss sex offender policy. That she would talk openly about the issue left her communications staff "terrorized," she said. The time has come, she said, to give the issue open discussion.

In late 2010, a Human Services review panel recommended the supervised release of two offenders from the MSOP. But on Jesson's watch, the department has blocked the releases in court. One of the patients, convicted rapist John Rydberg, has admitted to more than 90 sexual offenses and is considered a high risk to reoffend.

At the same time, Janus has long warned lawmakers that courts are running out of patience over civil liberties issues and the political use of commitment as a way to extend punishment. "We are approaching a potential train wreck,'' Janus said. "Our commitment program is into its third decade. We must ask ourselves, what are the standards for commitment?"

In a sobering observation, William Donnay, of the Department of Corrections, told the audience he believes there are offenders who would not be in the MSOP but for misguided political pressures. "We are supporting a system where we know some offenders present no threat to us," he said. "How do we work our way out of that?"

Paul McEnroe • 612-673-1745

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