Dru Sjodin’s 2003 death produced what may be its most important side effect yet, a federal judge’s ruling Wednesday that the Minnesota Sex Offender Treatment Program violates the U.S. Constitution.
U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank ordered those involved in the program, including leaders from the state executive and legislative branches, to work on a solution.
“There may be changes that could be made immediately, short of ordering the closure of the facilities, to remedy this problem,” Frank wrote.
Frank said he will hold an Aug. 10 conference where state executive and legislative branch officials “will be called upon to fashion suitable remedies to be presented to the court.”
The judge said in a 74-page ruling that the sex offender treatment facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter “will not be immediately closed.”
The program gives sex offenders no realistic chance of getting out, he said, even though some offenders could live outside the treatment centers.
Federal and state laws changed after Sjodin was kidnapped Nov. 22, 2003, from a Grand Forks, N.D., mall parking lot. Her body was found five months later and Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. of Crookston, Minn., was convicted of her death. Not long before Sjodin disappeared, he completed his 23-year prison term and was released, but not committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Treatment Program.
However, Minnesota politicians did little to change the treatment program that Frank criticized last year by calling it “one of the most draconian sex offender programs in existence” and adding: “The time for legislative action is now.”
The program allows state officials to keep sex offenders in prison-like hospitals as long as they want after their prison sentences are completed.
Sjodin’s death and the fact that Rodriguez did not go into treatment raised such an uproar among Minnesotans that politicians, prosecutors and judges began putting more and more offenders into treatment, boosting the number of clients from 150 then to 700 today.
Minnesota politicians increased prison terms for the worse sex offenders and took other measures, but did little with the treatment program. In the past couple of years, legislators expected Frank to order major changes, but with the issue a political minefield, they mostly avoided the issue themselves.
Sjodin was a University of North Dakota student and a Pequot Lakes High School graduate. Her mother, Linda Walker, has worked more than 11 years to change laws to keep people safe from sex offenders.
Those in the state treatment program live in prison-like conditions at Moose Lake and St. Peter state hospitals. Just one has graduated from treatment and he continues to live under supervision.
The class-action lawsuit filed by clients of the sex offender program claims that the program is punitive detention with little chance of getting out, even though their prison sentences have been served. That, they say, is unconstitutional.
On the first day of a spring trial in the case, the clients’ attorney produced a witness that compared Wisconsin to Minnesota. Both states created sex offender treatment programs about 20 years ago. But in Wisconsin, just 362 people are in the program and 118 have been discharged.
The state’s attorney said that the program is designed to keep Minnesota safe, which it does by treating sex offenders.
Keeping an offender in the treatment program costs $120,000 a year, three times the cost of an average prison inmate.