Program under scrutiny for keeping sex offenders past too long

Published 9:15 am Tuesday, March 5, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS — A federal court expects Minnesota to address the continuing concerns about the constitutionality of a program that keeps many sex offenders locked up past the end of their prison sentences, the head of a task force charged with proposing improvements said Monday.

In an interview with The Associated Press, former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson said the state has already started making some of the task force’s proposed changes for creating less-restrictive alternatives to the state’s high-security treatment facilities in St. Peter and Moose Lake.

“I don’t mean to be alarmist, but I think the federal court really expects that something will happen. … There is some sentiment, I think, at the Legislature that there is no urgency to this, that the worst that will happen is that the federal court will step in and solve the problem. And that, I think, is really misguided thinking,” Magnuson said.

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He said the task force doesn’t see its job as lobbying for specific proposals, but that lawmakers shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking they don’t need to act.

“The last thing you want to do is have a federal judge take over any part of your state operations,” continued Magnuson, who was chief justice from 2008 to 2010. “Because they’re not in a position to be sensitive to nuances. They carve with a broad sword and not a scalpel. And they will simply say ‘OK, it’s got these defects, and fix them now, and I don’t care how much it costs.”’

The Minnesota Sex Offender Program has survived several court challenges before. The current lawsuit, a class action on behalf of more than 600 people in the program, contends the way it works in practice fails to pass constitutional muster. The plaintiffs say they lack realistic opportunities for winning their freedom even if they successfully participate in treatment, so their indefinite commitments amount to punishment for crimes they haven’t committed.

Settlement talks are expected to continue at least into the summer.

Minnesota is one of 20 states that have civil commitment programs for sex offenders, Magnuson said, and it has by far the highest per-capital commitment rate in the country. Only one person has ever had a successful conditional discharge from the program. So, the court ordered the state Department of Human Services to appoint the task force to come up with recommendations for the Legislature.

Magnuson said they’re not going to recommend the release of sex offenders, but they are taking a closer look at how people get into the program, how they’re handled while in it and how they might get out of it.

The task force issued its first set of recommendations in December, calling on the Legislature to provide adequate funding for less-restrictive residential and outpatient facilities and treatment programs while still meeting the needs of public safety.

“So far, the Legislature hasn’t taken them up but we expect that that may happen relatively soon,” Magnuson said.

Magnuson said the task force may come up with additional recommendations along those lines during the current session. But given that the Department of Human Services has already begun looking at what facilities might be out there for less-restrictive settings, he said, none of the current proposals require major legislation.

The task force expects to issue its final report by the end of the year.

“We’re just trying to figure put the best recommendations for the system that we can make. And who does what with them is beyond our charge,” Magnuson said.