Dayton wants sex offender releases halted for time being

Published 11:08 am Thursday, November 14, 2013

ST. PAUL — Saying an established process had succumbed to politicization, Gov. Mark Dayton on Wednesday ordered his administration to oppose future provisional releases of sex offenders until the Legislature has time to change Minnesota’s legally embattled treatment program.

The change in course was conveyed in a letter to Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson and later explained by Dayton at a news conference. It comes days after a GOP gubernatorial hopeful accused the Democrat of putting public safety at risk, raising the likelihood it’ll become an election issue next year.

“It was just made clear that this was an issue that would be seized upon and abused by some who don’t mind scaring the people of Minnesota for their own advantage,” Dayton said. “We just can’t proceed in that environment.”

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Dayton’s decision won’t affect three discharge appeals currently in the court pipeline, including one from convicted rapist Thomas Duvall. His case drew renewed attention to the potential of indefinitely committed sex offenders moving back into the community with close supervision. Dayton and his administration allowed Duvall’s appeal to go forward despite objection from victims and Attorney General Lori Swanson, a fellow Democrat.

The policy of opposing future applications for supervised release, he said, will be frozen while the Legislature considers program changes in the 2014 session. Dayton is also suspending the planned transfer of some lesser-risk sex offenders to a residential facility in Cambridge.

State officials are facing pressure in a federal lawsuit to end the practice of unlimited treatment terms for patients in the Minnesota sex offender program. There’s a chance the entire program could be invalidated — and those in it set free — on grounds it amounts to a backdoor life sentence.

The 698 people in the program have been civilly committed in secure facilities after completing prison terms and are receiving treatment. The treatment is supposed to lead to eventual reintroduction into society, but only one offender has been released. The state has currently capacity for 789 offenders at once, meaning space concerns could become paramount.

Dayton has backed Jesson in her decision not to fight the release of Duvall.

Duvall, 58, was convicted three times of sexually assaulting teenage girls. He served time in prison for the offenses dating to the 1970s and 1980s. He has been civilly committed to treatment since 1991, and earlier this year a Department of Human Services panel recommended his supervised discharge. Jesson did not oppose the recommendation, but said Duvall should undergo examination by a specialist, which is scheduled for January.

A three-judge panel has agreed to hold an evidentiary hearing on Duvall’s case, likely in April.

Dayton said if it were up to him, Duvall and similar offenders “should never walk free. But that’s not what the law says right now and our responsibility as public officials is to uphold the law or change it.”

Last week, state Rep. Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove, a Republican candidate for governor, called for Duvall’s continued detainment. Zellers reiterated that call Wednesday and said the governor hasn’t gone far enough.

Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, said the decision regarding the suspended transfer of offenders to a facility in his community was welcome news after months of “unanswered questions and growing concern.”

What happens next is difficult to predict given the sensitivity of the topic and a looming election. The state Senate approved a bill last session to modify the sex offender program, calling for an intensive supervision and treatment program for any offenders who are provisionally released and a public awareness campaign. It also seeks more regular review of offenders who remain committed to assess whether they are making progress.

State Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, said she hopes the House will take the same action to reduce legal vulnerability.

“With nearly 700 persons there, we have to create evidence to the courts that this is really a treatment system and not incarceration,” she said.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said he has approached Republicans about seeking a bipartisan solution, as the GOP has indicated openness to.