With a high-profile court hearing set for next Wednesday, state officials this week underscored their opposition to a series of reforms that have been proposed for Minnesota’s troubled sex offender treatment program.
Citing concerns over funding, staff shortages and community opposition, officials said in court filings that it would be unrealistic to proceed with reforms that could accelerate release of sex offenders from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).
The program currently holds about 720 sex offenders at secure treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter. In June, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank declared the program unconstitutional and called on state leaders to propose reforms or face “a more forceful solution” imposed by the court.
In an affidavit filed in federal court on Monday, state Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said that a proposal to perform regular, independent risk evaluations of every MSOP detainee would be “impractical and costly.” Jesson also cited costs and local community opposition as a barrier to developing less-restrictive treatment facilities in the community.
Attorneys for the state have argued that the program is constitutional, and have declined thus far to propose any remedies.
The state’s filings set the stage for a combative hearing on Sept. 30, when top state officials and attorneys for a class of convicted sex offenders meet in court in St. Paul to debate the future of the MSOP, a program that Frank has called “draconian” and “clearly broken,” and has been widely decried for detaining too many offenders for too long. Only six offenders have been granted provisional discharge from the MSOP in its 20-year history; however, four of these offenders have been discharged just this year. At an annual cost of $120,000 per detainee, Minnesota civilly commits more sex offenders per capita than any other state.
“This is more of the same,” said Dan Gustafson, lead attorney for a class of offenders suing the state. “This is more of, ‘We don’t have a problem, but if we had a problem, we wouldn’t have the money to fix it.’ This has been the reaction of our state’s political leadership for the past 15 years, and it continues to be even after a judge declared [the MSOP] unconstitutional.”
Many of the proposed remedies rejected as unrealistic by the state were floated by Frank in his June ruling, in which he criticized the state for confining offenders indefinitely without giving them periodic reviews and access to the judicial system. Frank suggested more than a dozen specific reforms, including independent risk evaluations of all offenders at the MSOP and the creation of less-restrictive treatment alternatives in the community.
However, in her affidavit, Jesson warned that community opposition “can be a serious, or insurmountable, obstacle” to moving offenders to the community. She noted that about 22 state communities have passed ordinances restricting where some registered sex offenders may live. In the past, she warned, it has taken months of meetings with local leaders for them to accept a MSOP client.
Jesson also warned that developing less-restrictive alternatives would cost millions and require “large legislative appropriations that my staff and I do not control and cannot accomplish.” Her department estimates the cost of building or renovating a 20-bed facility to accept MSOP clients could top $8.5 million, plus another $5.3 million each year to operate.
In addition, a shortage of qualified professionals would make it impossible for the state to conduct forensic risk evaluations of all MSOP clients, Jesson said. “MSOP has not even been able to keep its own forensic evaluation department fully staffed — let alone hire the dozens of additional risk assessors that would be needed to accomplish the immediate and annual risk assessments proposed” by attorneys representing sex offenders, she said in her affidavit.