A federal judge ordered Minnesota Thursday to give sex offenders in a state treatment program a chance to be released, but did not require the state to free anyone immediately.
Judge Donovan Frank told state officials they have 30 days to evaluate the public risk some specific offenders present and 60 days to draw up a detailed plan for evaluating the rest of the 700-plus in treatment. All must be evaluated within a year.
If followed, Frank’s plan could produce the first releases from the program in its two decades of existence.
The state appealed Frank’s ruling less than four hours after he released it and asked that the order not be enforced until the appeal can be decided.
Gov. Mark Dayton said that the state program is constitutional, adding that Frank’s plan would rush decisions about offenders and could result in dangerous people being freed.
“They committed horrible crimes and they repeatedly committed horrible crimes,” Dayton said of the sex offenders being held in prison-like conditions while being treated at state hospitals.
Dayton’s human services commissioner said the state already is making changes similar to ones Frank wants.
“We’re proceeding, but not as swiftly as he is talking about…” Lucinda Jesson said. “We are doing it in a way that is very thoughtful”
Jesson and Dayton said they need more time to evaluate patients to see if they can be released safety, and they need more money to do that. More money will not be available unless legislators approve it during a session that begins in March.
To Dayton, “the most important issue is to risk public safety by starting to funnel (offenders) out prematurely, before we have the funding, before we have the facilities and before we have the staff in place.”
Frank said he wants quick action.
He wrote that the state “must promptly conduct independent” assessment of each of the sex offenders in the program, all but one of whom are men, to see if they meet constitutional requirements to keep them in the post-prison treatment. State officials must determine if offenders could be housed in “less restricted alternative” settings, he wrote.
The judge said that he may order the state to make other treatment program changes and will maintain control of the program for five years.
Frank long has indicated he thinks the Minnesota sex offender program is unconstitutional, making it official in a June ruling.
He named former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson a “special master” who will be a go-between with the state.
Frank found the Minnesota sex offender program violates the U.S. Constitution’s provision stating that no state may “deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.”
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.
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.
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.
“It’s clear that the judge wants the independent evaluations to move forward quickly,” Gustafson told reporters. “That’s the main part of our lawsuit, that the state knows about people in Moose Lake and St. Peter who don’t belong there, and yet they don’t take affirmative action to have them moved to a lesser facility or released.”
Gustafson spoke at length about the roughly 200 sex offenders in the program who are elderly, intellectually disabled or committed their crimes as minors.
“I think the reason we shouldn’t be concerned about (releasing offenders) is the testimony at trial from the people who run the (treatment program) say these people are people who could be housed in less restrictive alternatives,” he said. “And you need to remember: Don’t confuse ‘less restrictive’ with ‘less safe.'”
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 settings.
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.
Gustafson pointed at Sjodin’s abduction as the origin of the program’s overly restrictive practices.
“That has created a public perception that everyone who has committed a sex offense is a ticking timebomb,” he said. “The truth is most of the sex offenders who get out of prison in Minnesota are not committed. Most of them live in the community under court supervision, and most of them don’t reoffend.”