State Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson took the witness stand Friday in the trial over Minnesota’s sex offender treatment system, arguing that she had reformed the program but finding herself unable to detail specific changes.
Testifying on the fifth day of a trial that could upend the entire program, Jesson said changes during her tenure included some reforms recommended by high-level state task forces and the office of Legislative Auditor James Nobles.
But she said further changes depend on action by the Legislature. Attorney Dan Gustafson, representing the plaintiffs in the case, asked Jesson to give specific examples of changes she’s made to help move more offenders toward completion of the program.
“I can’t tell them all,” she replied.
“Can you tell me any of the changes that they made?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “I can just tell you the outcomes.”
She said more offenders are advancing through treatment and receiving speedy case reviews. “We have been as responsive as we can be with the power and the funding that we have,” Jesson testified.
The state has been sued by a class of sex offenders who say the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) fails to offer adequate treatment or a realistic path to release.
The lawsuit challenges the program’s constitutionality, with the plaintiffs arguing that it effectively imposes a life sentence.
The program has granted conditional discharge to just three offenders in its 20-year history.
The suit could force wrenching changes in the way Minnesota confines and treats hardened sex offenders if U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank rules in favor of the plaintiffs.
That verdict would force the state to adopt difficult reforms that state lawmakers have long resisted, including the expedited release of offenders and more community treatment alternatives.
The MSOP operates high-security facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter, confining about 700 convicted sex offenders who were civilly committed as dangerous after completing their prison terms.
At Friday’s hearing Jesson said the number of offenders reaching phase three of treatment, considered the likeliest for release, has more than doubled, to 9 percent, since January 2012.
The number of offenders moving to phase two has risen from 25 percent to 51 percent, she said.
Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed spending more than $11 million to help reform the program.
The MSOP population has grown rapidly since the 2003 abduction and murder of college student Dru Sjodin, when the state adopted changes that made it easier to confine sex offenders and harder for them to win release.
The latest recommendations, part of Dayton’s proposed $42 billion budget unveiled last month, includes money to move 50 MSOP residents to less-restrictive settings if they are approved.