The first steps ordered by a federal judge to reform Minnesota’s controversial sex offender program sound remarkably familiar and, more important, eminently reasonable after years of debate over locking people up indefinitely after they’ve served their sentences.
State politicians have long lacked the fortitude for fixes, which led to U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank’s decisive ruling last summer that the program violates the constitutional safeguards at the heart of our criminal justice system. But Donovan stopped short of detailing reforms and instead urged state leaders to work together on change.
That approach failed. Frank was left with little choice but to take the next legal step, which came Oct. 28 in the form of the first interim relief order. The changes ordered are modest, especially given the range of remedies he could have employed to combat decades of systemic abuse. The ruling doesn’t require the state to do anything other than evaluate everyone in the program and then develop a process to release those who no longer are a public safety threat.
The 21-year-old Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) detains sex offenders for treatment long after they’ve served their sentences; about 720 people are currently in it. The program’s failure to release people and its swelling costs ($125,000 annually per inmate) have long made it an outlier compared with other states’ programs. This summer, state officials admitted during court proceedings that they know there are people in the program who do not meet legal requirements for detention. Many of those expected to be good candidates for release are elderly or committed their crimes years ago as juveniles.
The measures ordered by Frank do not come out of the blue. They hew closely to recommendations made by previous task forces and a report on the program released in 2011 by Minnesota’s respected Office of the Legislative Auditor. Gov. Mark Dayton had also taken tentative steps in this direction but pulled back in 2013 after politically motivated “soft-on-crime” criticism from former Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson.
Swanson’s dubious influence is clear in the state’s response to the order. Her office rapidly filed a motion to stay the judge’s ruling. What’s striking about this document is its defiant tone and that it buried any arguments that Frank is wrong on the merits. The state instead shamefully attempts to make Frank the issue. It argues that the respected judge has acted improperly and implies that he has become a crusader rather than an arbiter of justice. Legal experts consulted by an editorial writer dubbed those arguments “weak.”
A key argument by the state is that Frank sets a timeline too ambitious to carry out his order. But if that’s the case, the wiser strategy is one of cooperation, rather than defiance. Obstructing the judge at all turns is a losing strategy, one that will ultimately result in the state ceding control for future changes and the costs of making them. How would that be in Minnesota’s best interest?