Years of political failure to reform Minnesota’s controversial sex offender program — inaction that essentially kept daring the judiciary to intervene on constitutional grounds — has finally yielded the regrettable inevitable. On Wednesday, a federal court decisively ruled that locking up offenders after they’ve served their criminal sentences with no hope of release is not permitted within the constitutional safeguards of our criminal justice system.
Minnesota lawmakers should respect that ruling and work with the court on meaningful, overdue reforms, not respond with defiance. “We continue to believe that both the Minnesota Sex Offender Program and the civil commitment statute are constitutional. We will work with the Attorney General to defend Minnesota’s law,’’ Gov. Mark Dayton said in a Wednesday statement. Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, also rejected the judge’s conclusion on Wednesday. Daring the court to act again by displaying unwillingness to cooperate is imprudent.
It can’t be emphasized enough that the ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank does not throw open the doors of facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter, where more than 700 sex offenders detained through civil commitment are held. But the ruling does make it clear that “overwhelming evidence” establishes that “there is something very wrong with the state’s method of dealing with sex offenders that has never fully discharged anyone … since its inception in 1994.’’
While many court observers had expected the ruling to order detailed reforms, the judge refrained from declaring what the overhaul will look like. Instead, Frank took the surprising step of inviting Dayton, Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and other key policymakers to an August meeting to weigh and plan reforms.
The judge, however, did recommend multiple measures for consideration at that meeting. None comes as a surprise. They mainly hew to the sensible road maps for reform outlined by two previous task forces and a 2011 report by Minnesota’s Office of the Legislative Auditor. Essentially, these reforms would yield a consistent, objective process by which experts could deem some offenders in the program less likely to reoffend and eligible to be moved to a less prisonlike facility or even considered for eventual release — a strategy that is used in many other states.
Frank’s approach is careful, deliberative and sensitive to understandable public fears about those currently detained in the sex offender program. But it doesn’t let Minnesota’s political leaders duck their responsibility to fix this troubled program, which is also dogged by soaring costs due to increasing civil commitment numbers.
Minnesota’s political leaders have known for years that the program was very likely unconstitutional, with hundreds of people unjustly imprisoned. Many did nothing because they self-servingly feared that political opponents would accuse them of being “soft on crime.” Some, including Dayton, championed reforms but retreated after such political blowback.
An admirable handful of policymakers stand out for unflinching determination to tackle this issue. They include Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, who did everything she could to address court concerns before this ruling. Lawmakers such as state Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, and state Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, also have long been advocates for reform. In 2013, the Minnesota Senate passed, with bipartisan support, a legislative blueprint for basic improvements. Those who championed reforms need to push their colleagues now to work with the judge.
It would have been more expedient for Frank to simply order the sweeping changes the program requires. There are legitimate questions about whether that might have been a swifter, surer way to end the program’s injustice. But by calling the summer summit, Frank is giving Minnesota political leaders one more chance (and political cover) to engage. They ought to live up to the faith this respected judge has placed in them and work together to create a program worthy of American principles.