The Minnesota Supreme Court jumped into the controversy over the state’s handling of sex offenders Wednesday, taking the rare step of overturning the indefinite civil commitment of a convicted 24-year-old rapist.

Citing the unusual circumstances in the case involving Cedrick Ince, the justices ordered the Sibley County District Court to re-evaluate whether he is highly likely to re-engage in acts of harmful sexual conduct and if a less restrictive treatment alternative might be available. Ince had been at the secure facility in Moose Lake since August 2012.

The ruling didn’t come as a complete surprise, because a dissenting opinion in an earlier state Court of Appeals ruling had argued that Ince’s commitment was clearly erroneous because he didn’t have the required history of violent behavior and wasn’t highly likely to reoffend.

In a concurring opinion to Wednesday’s ruling, Justice Alan Page sharply criticized the Legislature, saying it hasn’t created adequate facilities and treatment programs for those civilly committed as sexually dangerous. Instead, he wrote, it has created a one-size-fits-all system that channels sexual offenders into indefinite commitment.

“It’s a significant victory for Cedrick,” said Ince’s attorney, Ken White. “We won the battle, but the war is not over. At least major concerns were raised.”

There are nearly 700 sex offenders in Minnesota indefinitely committed by court order to secure facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter. Only two have been placed on any kind of provisional discharge, and none has been unconditionally released since the program’s inception in 1993. Only six of the 450 offenders who have appealed their civil commitments have had them overturned, and nearly all of those happened in the program’s first few years.

Ince has two convictions for criminal sexual conduct, both involving assaults on fellow teenagers. In 2007, when he was 17, he assaulted a 17-year-old girl who had passed out on a couch at a party. In 2008, two weeks after being placed on probation for the earlier offense, he broke into a 19-year-old’s home and raped her after a lengthy struggle. Ince later told authorities that he was under the influence of alcohol during both attacks.

He was sentenced to four years in prison, and Sibley County petitioned for a civil commitment. He was released on intensive supervised release until the conclusion of his commitment trial in May 2012. During those eight months, he got a job on a dairy farm and rented a farmhouse from his employer. He also started court-ordered sex offender treatment and was successfully dealing with his alcohol and drug issues.

During the commitment trial, three experts recommended that he be civilly committed as a sexually dangerous person. More than 80 percent of commitment petitions are approved.

Views on impact vary

Members of the legal community had varying opinions about the impact of Wednesday’s ruling. Eric Janus, president of William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, said the civil commitment reversal was important but that the court declined to give the District Court any additional guidance on what kind of risk is required before a person can be committed.

“On the other hand, they found the District Court’s explanation of its finding of risk wasn’t adequate and wanted a better explanation,” he said. “It’s a good step.”

Teresa Nelson, who wrote a brief for the appeal on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, had urged the court to update the factors to determine if a person should be committed as sexually dangerous in light of new research. In their ruling, the justices did stress that the relative weight of risk factors and other evidence should be determined on a case-by-case basis by the district court.

On Wednesday, Nelson said she was pleased that the ruling addressed the issue of the statutory requirement of trying to find a less-restrictive treatment program than a secured facility.

“The ruling stated that the court had not previously addressed it, which is astounding,” she said. “It breathes some life into that provision. This doesn’t turn civil commitment on its head. It’s a course correction.”

Assistant Hennepin County Attorney John Kirwin said he doesn’t believe the ruling broke ground, because it left all previous standards and procedures for civil commitment in place. The ruling said there wasn’t a suggestion that the District Court’s conclusions lacked support in the record, he said. Rather, it noted the difficult task the court faced in this case because of Ince’s success while on supervised release.

The legislative arena

In his concurring opinion, Page wrote that the state’s failure to provide any option for the civilly committed sex offender other than confinement in a secure facility leaves Ince in a quandary. He had adapted to intensive supervision in the community, but the experts testified that he still needed to be placed in Moose Lake.

“If civil commitment is not just for prevention detention, then the Legislature should provide treatment facilities and programs that provide a measure of public safety short of confinement,” he wrote.

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, chairwoman of the Senate Health, Human Services and Housing Committee, has authored a measure requiring the state Department of Human Services to develop less restrictive alternatives so that judges can decide where to civilly commit offenders, rather than ordering them directly behind barbed wire. The bill also allows offenders to “graduate” or move through various levels of security as they complete treatment, “so that it really is a treatment program that allows people to move forward rather than a way of continuing their sentence.” she said.

Sheran’s bill cleared the state Senate last session but has seen no action in the House. The Mankato DFLer said she has little hope that it’ll gain traction this session.

“I absolutely believe the responsible thing has been done in the Senate,” Sheran said. “We are the group that can create that outcome. The court is only going to be making decisions about constitutionality.”

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank, in response to a class-action lawsuit by offenders, has been extremely critical of the program and has urged the Legislature to take action. Two task forces have been formed to examine the program, and Gov. Mark Dayton has publicly voiced his concerns.

In the next few months, the Sibley County District Court will decide if Ince should again be civilly committed or permanently released back to intense supervision, said White, his attorney.

“But this ruling is significant because it reminds the court they need to be very detailed and precise how they got to their decision,” he said.