Federal judge questions legality of Minnesota's sex offender program

  • Article by: CHRIS SERRES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 20, 2014 - 9:53 PM

Judge urges legislators to find a fix for “draconian” confinement.

A federal judge has found that Minnesota’s sex-offender treatment program may violate the Constitution, describing it as “clearly broken,” “draconian” and in need of immediate reform.

The strongly worded ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank brings new urgency to stalled efforts by state lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton to reform the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP), which has come under fire for confining people indefinitely in prisonlike treatment centers — what critics say is a de-facto life sentence.

Frank called on legislators to take immediate action or face a court-ordered remedy. “The politicians of this great state must now ask themselves if they will act to revise a system that is clearly broken, or stand idly by and do nothing, simply awaiting court intervention,” Frank wrote in a 75-page decision issued Thursday.

Frank’s ruling sets the stage for what could be a pitched battle between lawmakers who want to develop a different way of treating Minnesota’s population of sex offenders, while leaving the system largely intact, and others who believe the state’s entire system for treating sex offenders outside of prisons is too expensive and ought to be scrapped in favor of keeping them in prison longer.

The issue could come to a head when the Legislature’s 2014 session opens Tuesday.

Dayton convened a high-level meeting of state officials and legislators at his office on Jan. 23 to discuss how to address the situation. Those present included the leaders of both houses of the Legislature, as well as the heads of the Department of Human Services (DHS) and Department of Corrections.

“It was all about trying to find some common ground on this issue,” said Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, chair of the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee, who attended. “The governor made it clear that this is an issue that needs resolution.”

Rapid growth, high costs

The MSOP holds nearly 700 offenders — more, per capita, than any comparable program in other states. With costs far higher than prison costs, its outlays also have exploded.

But while experts and legislators have called for changes to the MSOP, actual reforms have been difficult to implement. Sex offenders remain a highly stigmatized group, and the specific actions needed to ensure that their civil rights are protected may be too unsavory for public officials to address, warn legal analysts.

“Why would any legislator touch this issue?” asked Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center. “Are you that worried about the civil rights of sex offenders? I admit it, I don’t have the courage to have a sex offender released in my hometown.”

Legislators who had hoped that Frank would give them a detailed outline for reform may have been disappointed with the ruling Thursday.

Even though Frank had harsh words for the MSOP — warning that its “systemic problems will only worsen” in the next few years — he was measured in his recommendations, leaving the details to state officials.

“The time for legislative action is now,” Frank wrote. “Whether or not the system is constitutionally infirm, without prompt action on the part of the Legislature and DHS, MSOP’s reputation as one of the most draconian sex offender programs in existence will continue.”

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, said lawmakers are preparing legislation that would implement many of the reforms proposed earlier this year by a state task force, including a biennial review of the cases of confined sex offenders. However, she acknowledged that some lawmakers would not even want to broach the issue.

“There will be people who will still want to wash their hands of the problem and let the court decide,” she said.

But political inaction heightens the possibility that the federal courts will, at some point, rule that the MSOP is unconstitutional and order the release of hundreds of violent sex offenders.

A recent case in California has shown what can happen when the federal court intervenes. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that overcrowding in California’s prisons amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and ordered the state to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates.

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