Judge has ordered state program overhauled, but doing so means huge political risks for legislators.
The pressure to overhaul a state sex offender treatment program that has been called “clearly broken” by a federal judge is mounting daily, but the Legislature may not act in time to prevent court intervention.
With just weeks to go in the session, Gov. Mark Dayton and legislators are blaming one another for failing to address the problems identified by Judge Donovan Frank. In February, Frank called on state lawmakers to take immediate action or face a court-ordered remedy.
But little has happened since then.
Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, whose department oversees the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP), said recently that she had hoped for a different outcome this session. “I’m disappointed,” she said. “I’m concerned about the lack of progress toward overall system reform.”
Leaving the program as it is heightens the possibility that the federal courts could, at some point, declare it unconstitutional and order the release of hundreds of the state’s most violent sex offenders. There is precedent for such dramatic intervention: In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California’s overcrowded prisons amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and ordered the state to reduce its inmate population by 30,000.
Dayton said he asked the Legislature to approve $3 million for professional evaluation of sex offenders — a specific requirement to meet Frank’s order — and said he still expects lawmakers to approve it. “I hope we will get that money,” the governor said. “I don’t know why anyone would object to up-to-date psychological evaluations so we know what we’re dealing with.”
Minnesota’s program holds nearly 700 sex offenders — more per capita than any comparable program in other states. With costs far higher than prison costs, its outlays also have exploded. The state has been criticized in the past for doing too little to prove that those in its care are receiving an actual course of treatment rather than just being held indefinitely after serving their prison sentences.
Critics of the sex offender program say they are not surprised by legislative foot-dragging. Addressing the civil rights of serial rapists and child molesters in an election year, they say, is tantamount to political suicide.
“If they fix [the MSOP], I can tell you in November they’re the ones that are going to be accused of endangering all the women in Minnesota, and they know it’s gonna be ugly,” said Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota, which has advocated for the confined in the lawsuit before Frank.
‘Need bipartisan support’
Last spring, the state Senate passed a bill to reform the program by modeling it after programs in New York and Wisconsin, but a companion bill faltered in the House. A similar Senate measure drafted this year also stalled.
Dayton said that he does not expect lawmakers to approve a wholesale makeover this year.
“I’ve always thought realistically it’s going to have to wait until the 2015 legislative session,” he said, “and I hope we have enough courage to deal with it ourselves.”
Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said that Dayton should be providing a specific blueprint for lawmakers and leading the efforts for change.
“I’ve been around here long enough to know that when governors want something, they get it 90 percent of the time,” Hann said. “And this governor has not made this a priority. This is his administration administering the program, and if anyone should know what direction to take, he should be the one.”
House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, has said that House Republicans must cooperate with DFLers to forge a sturdy plan for overhauling the existing arrangement.
“For something that’s as important as this, we do need bipartisan support,” Thissen said. “It’s an issue of fundamental public safety.”
In addition to public safety, both sides need the other to join them in any proposed solution in order to limit finger-pointing. But House Minority Leader Rep. Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said there are legitimate differences on approaches to reform that pose a barrier to legislative change.
“My impression is that the Democrats right now have their mind wrapped around some kind of less-restrictive alternative for the current population, and I think this would be incredibly unpopular,” Daudt said. “The public doesn’t support it because the public understands this is a dangerous population and they don’t want these people living next door to them.
Warren Maas, executive director of Project Pathfinder, which works with sex offenders to prevent recidivism, fully understands the political realities. Maas was there, shortly after Frank’s order, when the Minnesota chapter of the Association for the Treatment of Sex Abusers held an informational session for all 201 legislators, offering assistance in the event of MSOP reform.
Six lawmakers showed up.
“I think for most of them it wasn’t a priority,” Maas said. “But for some of them it was whatever the opposite of priority is. Some of the legislators are pretty adamant that they’re not going to lift a finger. They’re going to let the court system take the hit on the issue of release from MSOP.”
Maas said he wasn’t surprised: The public’s revulsion to sex offenders becomes “low-hanging fruit for negative political messaging.”
Maas said the lawmakers who did show up were engaged, attentive and interested, but their numbers were too few to make a difference.
“It’s a huge disservice not just to offenders but to the community at large,” he said. “We’re wasting a lot of time demonizing a group of people who have the second-lowest recidivism rate among criminals, and nobody wants to hear that.”
Staff writers Patrick Condon and Chris Serres contributed to this report.
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