A group of convicted sex offenders suing the state over their detention in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) is demanding a broad package of reforms designed to bring the troubled system up to constitutional standards.
Ahead of a major court hearing late next month, attorneys representing the sex offenders filed a long list of proposed reforms that would lead to the development of more community-based treatment programs and the expedited release of many of the 720 offenders locked up indefinitely at secure treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter.
The proposed remedies would move Minnesota’s system closer to those in the 19 other states that also detain offenders after they have completed their prison terms. The reforms would give detainees the right to petition the courts for release, for example, and require the state to conduct regular evaluations to ensure that offenders are still dangerous enough to be locked up.
Last week, Judge Donovan Frank of the U.S. District Court in St. Paul ordered both sides in a prolonged, four-year court case to come up with proposals to correct systemic problems with the MSOP.
Though Frank warned of a “more forceful solution” if state leaders failed to implement changes, attorneys for the state surprised legal observers by declining to offer any ideas for reform. In a letter last Friday to the court, the state attorney general’s office said that it considers the program constitutional and that it would only respond to remedies sought by the sex offenders. A hearing on the proposed remedies is set for Sept. 30.
The one-sided response to the judge’s order means the state will have limited say in any changes imposed by Frank, who has called the program “clearly broken” and “draconian.”
“It’s unfortunate that the state is taking this position,” said Eric Janus, a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law who served on a state task force that recommended sweeping changes to the program in 2013. “They have put themselves in a defensive posture and are, by doing so, giving up a real opportunity to help shape the future of this program.”
Many of the changes sought by offenders, and laid out in their filing Wednesday, have been contemplated for years, and many have been suggested by various task forces and outside experts consulted by the state.
The number of people committed to the MSOP soared in the mid-2000s, in the wake of the 2003 kidnapping and murder of college student Dru Sjodin by a convicted sex offender.
The program was unprepared for this drastic increase in population; the lack of treatment alternatives in the community meant hundreds of offenders got stuck in treatment and lost hope of ever getting released.
Minnesota now confines more sex offenders per capita than any other state, and only four offenders have been conditionally discharged from the MSOP in its 20-year history. To date, no one has been unconditionally released from the program, leading to charges that it amounts to unconstitutional permanent detention.
In the filing Wednesday, attorneys for offenders proposed nearly 20 specific reforms, including some that have been suggested by Frank. These include annual independent risk assessments for all detainees to determine whether they still meet the legal criteria for confinement; the creation of less-restrictive treatment facilities in the community, and ongoing external review of the MSOP’s treatment program.
Attorneys for offenders also have proposed that civilly committed offenders have the right to petition the courts at any time for discharge or a reduction in custody and that hearings on these cases be streamlined and heard in a timely manner. Currently, offenders must petition to two separate boards, which critics say results in bureaucratic delays in discharge decisions.