By Don Davis
Gov. Mark Dayton today temporarily slammed the door on releasing anyone from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, although a judicial panel will continue its consideration of releasing three offenders.
Dayton ordered Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson to stop consideration of further releases until he and the Legislature can update state law next year.
The Democratic governor said that as a father and grandfather, he would like to see sex offenders locked away forever, but a federal judge is considering calling the state sex offender program unconstitutional. If that happens, the judge could take over the program and, Dayton said, release people without proper public safety concern.
Dayton also ordered Jesson to stop plans to transfer sex offenders out of state treatment facilities in St. Peter and Moose Lake.
Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said the situation is tricky because at some point when sex offenders are released, someone will reoffend. But federal courts have said the state must find a way to release offenders instead of keeping them in jail-like facilities for life.
Jesson earlier sent three sex offenders to a judicial panel, which could order their release. That created a political uproar, which Dayton said influenced him to stop releases.
However, Jesson said, she cannot stop the judicial panel’s consideration of the three.
The state program is supposed to provide treatment after sex offenders finish their prison terms.
“In practice, however, these civil commitments have turned into virtual life sentences,” Dayton said. “During the past 20 years, only one person has been successfully provisionally released.”
State officials have tried for more than a year to find a way to change the state sex offender program so a federal judge would not take it over.
The judge ruled that the state’s program is unconstitutional because many serious sex offenders are placed in the program indefinitely after serving their prison time. He ruled that putting them in another jail-like setting was more like prison than treatment.
A 15-person task force led by former state Chief Justice Eric Magnuson is looking at ways Minnesota can meet federal requirements. If Minnesota fails, federal courts could take over the program after several committed to the program sued, claiming being forced into the program amounts to a lifetime prison term.
A task force preliminary recommendation suggests establishing a new panel of sex offender experts to screen people for commitment to the post-prison treatment program, a process known as civil commitment.
Those civil commitments have increased dramatically since University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin was kidnapped and murdered, her body found near Crookston in 2004. The man sentenced to the death penalty in the case, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., was a convicted sex offender who had recently been released from prison.
The state reports that the sex offender program had 698 clients earlier this month at facilities in St. Peter and Moose Lake.