Federal Judge Says State Must Prepare To Release Sex Offenders

Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson tells reporters on Sept. 30, 2015, that she expected the state to appeal a federal judge's decision declaring the state sex offender treatment program unconstitutional. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)
Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson tells reporters on Sept. 30, 2015, that she expected the state to appeal a federal judge’s decision declaring the state sex offender treatment program unconstitutional. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

A federal judge ordered Minnesota to review more than 700 sex offenders in a treatment program with a goal of releasing those who are ready.

In a long-awaited ruling Thursday, Judge Donovan Frank laid out his plan that could end up with the first releases from the program in its more than two decades of existence.

However, state officials long have said they think the current plan is constitutional and planned to appeal Judge Donovan Frank’s decision. The governor planned to speak later Thursday afternoon.

Frank wrote that the state “must promptly conduct independent” assessment of each of the 700-plus people in the program to see if they meet constitutional requirements to keep them in the post-prison treatment. State officials must determine if they could be housed in “less restricted alternative,” he wrote.

In a month, the state must complete evaluations of eight people in the program that have been designated for transfer out of the two high-security state hospitals, Frank’s order says. Also in that time, the state must supply a plan for how to deal with those with disabilities and juvenile offenders

The state would have 60 days to draw up a detailed plan for all sex offenders in the program.

If the independent assessments show any offenders are ready for release to less-restrictive environments, the state must refer them to a board that would decide their future, the judge ruled.

Frank said that he may order the state to improve treatment programs.

He said that he will maintain control over the treatment program for five years.

Frank long has made no secret that he thinks the Minnesota sex offender program is unconstitutional, making it official in a June ruling.

State officials awaited Thursday’s ruling to know what he had in mind and to begin appeals preparations. Frank drew up his plan after a lengthy trial on a lawsuit sex offenders brought against the state, claiming they are improperly imprisoned.

County attorneys can ask judges to commit sex offenders considered the most dangerous to a treatment program after they finish their prison sentences. Sex offenders are held in state hospitals in Moose Lake and St. Peter indefinitely.

Parts of the hospitals where they are housed look like prisons, surrounded by razor wire.

Sex offenders claim in their suit that they are being held unconstitutionally because they are in prison-like facilities after their sentences end, with little hope of getting out.

After a Sept. 30 hearing in Frank’s court, Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said: “We continue to believe the program as it is being run today is constitutional and we want to be able to appeal the judge’s ruling … as soon as we can.”

Jesson said that she and Gov. Mark Dayton support reforms to the current system, just not overturning it.

The next step for the suit would the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. Its decision could be appealed on to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Attorney Dan Gustafson, who represents sex offenders in the treatment program, said he expects the appeals court to decide the case in a year or two. One question to be answered is what happens with sex offenders in the meantime.

More than 700 sex offenders are in the state program. In the two decades the program has been in place, no one has been totally released, although a few have been let out of the hospitals to high-security situations.

Frank last month indicated that he had no plans of a mass release of sex offenders, as has happened elsewhere when a federal judge found the state unconstitutionally held them.

“Everyone has a job to do,” Frank said. “I am asking everyone to treat people in a civil way. … Let’s see if we can make the system work.”

Minnesota began focusing on sex offender post-prison commitment after University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin was kidnapped and killed in 2003. A federal jury convicted Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. of the crime; he had been let out of a Minnesota prison after serving time on a sex crime charge, but was not committed to the treatment program.

Then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty began pushing for more sex offenders to go into the program, which dramatically increased the number of patients.

County attorneys decide whether to ask judges to commit sex offenders getting out of prison.