Judge To Minnesota: Fix Program Or Sex Offenders May Be Released

The Minnesota Sex Offender Program facility at Moose Lake, Minn. (2011 file / News Tribune)
The Minnesota Sex Offender Program facility at Moose Lake.

A federal judge says sex offenders have rights, too, and told state officials Wednesday to either make the Minnesota Sex Offender Program constitutional or he may release some offenders.

It is a debate that began after the kidnapping and killing of Dru Sjodin in 2003, when the number of sex offenders committed to the treatment program began a dramatic increase.

U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank did not order specific changes to the program and said no sex offenders will be released immediately. However, without changes, he indicated that closing the program or releasing sex offenders is possible.

“The stark reality is that there is something very wrong with this state’s method of dealing with sex offenders in a program that has never fully discharged anyone committed to its detention facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter since its inception in 1994,” wrote Frank, who as a St. Louis County, Minn., prosecutor and state judge dealt with sex offender cases.

“It is undisputed that there are civilly committed individuals at the MSOP who could be safely placed in the community or in less restrictive facilities,” Frank wrote about the program that keeps some sex offenders in prison-like hospitals for years after they finish serving prison terms.

The ruling gives state officials one last chance, after several warnings, to change the program before the judge makes the decisions for them.

“We are going to have to make it a real treatment program,” said Sen. Tony Lourey, D-Kerrick, a key legislative player on the issue.

Gov. Mark Dayton and Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson disagree with the ruling and pledged to defend the program.

“He has not ordered any specific changes…” Jesson said in an interview. “We are just continuing to run the program.”

Some changes that Frank suggested already are in the works, she added, including putting some offenders in less restrictive facilities. Another Frank idea matches one from Dayton, which did not pass the Legislature, to regularly evaluate the progress that sex offenders make in treatment.

Frank, who then-U.S. Sen. Dayton recommended be named a federal judge in 1998, asked state leaders to attend an Aug. 10 meeting to design a constitutional treatment program. He said that among those he wants at the meeting are Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk

“There may be changes that could be made immediately, short of ordering the closure of the facilities, to remedy this problem,” Frank wrote.

Jesson said that legislators would have to change state law and appropriate money for most of Frank’s ideas. If he insists that happen before the Legislature convenes next March 8, it would require a special session.

Lourey said that Frank wants politicians reluctant to be seen as letting sex offenders go free to get the message “that we really do have to do something.”

Senators already have voted to make changes, some of which fit with Frank’s proposals. The House has not taken action.

The attorney for sex offenders who brought the class-action lawsuit against the state was happy that Frank said that offenders have rights.

“This order highlights the complete failure of the political system in Minnesota with respect to these important issues but more importantly, it reaffirms that all people, no matter how disliked they are or how reprehensible their prior conduct, are entitled to constitutional protection,” Dan Gustafson said.

Frank said in a 76-page ruling that the sex offender treatment in Moose Lake and St. Peter state hospitals gives sex offenders no “realistic hope of ever getting out,” even though some offenders could live outside the treatment centers.

The debate about what to do with sex offenders after their prison terms end began when Sjodin was killed in 2003.

Shortly before Sjodin disappeared, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. completed his 23-year prison term and was released, but was not committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program.

Federal and state laws changed after Sjodin was kidnapped on Nov. 22, 2003, from a Grand Forks, N.D., mall parking lot. Her body was found five months later and Rodriguez of Crookston, Minn., was convicted of her death.

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 714 today.

Minnesota politicians increased prison terms for the worse sex offenders, but did little with the treatment program. In the past couple of years, legislators expected Frank to order major changes, but they mostly avoided voting to let sex offenders go free.

Sjodin was a University of North Dakota student and a Pequot Lakes High School graduate.

The St. Pioneer Press, a Forum News Service media partner, contributed to this report.

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Sex offender ruling quotes

Here are some excerpts from Frank’s ruling:

“(The program) challenges the boundaries that we the people set on the notions of individual liberty and freedom, the bedrock principles embedded in the United States Constitution.”

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“It is fundamental to our notions of a free society that we do not imprison citizens because we fear that they might commit a crime in the future. Although the public might be safer if the government, using the latest ‘scientific’ methods of predicting human behavior, locked up potential murderers, rapists, robbers and, of course, sex offenders, our system of justice, enshrined in rights guaranteed by our Constitution, prohibits the imposition of preventive detention except in very limited circumstances.”

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“The court concludes that Minnesota’s civil commitment statutes and sex offender program do not pass constitutional scrutiny. … The stark reality is that there is something very wrong with this state’s method of dealing with sex offenders in a program that has never fully discharged anyone committed to its detention facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter since its inception in 1994.”

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“In light of the structure of the MSOP and the history of its operation, no one has any realistic hope of ever getting out of this ‘civil’ detention. Instead, it is undisputed that there are committed individuals who meet the criteria for reduction in custody or who no longer meet the criteria for commitment who continue to be confined at the MSOP.”

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“There are some sex offenders who are truly dangerous and who should not be released; however, the criminal and civil justice systems should say so and implement appropriate procedures so as to afford individuals their constitutional protections.”

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“The rate of (sex offender) commitment in Minnesota is 128.6 per million, the rate of commitment in North Dakota is 77.8 per million and the rate of commitment in New York is 15 per million. The rate of commitment in Minnesota is significantly higher than the rate of commitment in Wisconsin, which is demographically similar to Minnesota.”

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“A significant increase in commitment and referral rates followed the abduction and murder of Dru Sjodin in late 2003.”

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“The evidence clearly establishes that hopelessness pervades the environment at the MSOP, and that there is an emotional climate of despair among the facilities’ residents, particularly among residents at the Moose Lake facility.”

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“Site visit auditors also confirmed that frequent staff turnover, particularly at Moose Lake, has negatively impacted therapeutic treatment engagement.”

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“The court is hopeful that the stakeholders will fashion suitable remedies so that the court need not consider closing the MSOP facilities or releasing a number of individuals from the MSOP with or without conditions. As the court has stated in a number of previous orders and will now say one last time, the time is now for all of the stakeholders in the criminal justice system and civil commitment system to come together and develop policies and pass laws that will not only protect the public safety and address the fears and concerns of all citizens, but will preserve the constitutional rights of the class members (those in treatment).”