A federal judge says the Minnesota Sex Offender Program is unconstitutional, but what happens next is unclear.
The judge did not order specific changes to the program in his Wednesday ruling and said no sex offenders will be released immediately. However, without changes in the program he indicated that a mass release of sex offenders is possible.
“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…” U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank wrote about the program that keeps some sex offenders in a prison-like setting for years or decades after they finish serving their prison terms. “The stated goal of the MSOP’s treatment program, observed in theory but not in practice, is to treat and safely reintegrate committed individuals at the MSOP back into the community.”
Gov. Mark Dayton and Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson disagree with the ruling.
“We continue to believe that both the Minnesota Sex Offender Program and the civil commitment statute are constitutional,” Dayton said in a statement. “We will work with the attorney general to defend Minnesota’s law.”
Dayton and Jesson were thankful that Frank did not order any sex offenders released.
“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, but did not order, already are in the works, she added. Included among them are less restrictive facilities for some offenders, compared to prison-like hospitals where treatment now is provided.
Dayton proposed funding, which did not pass this legislative session, to regularly evaluate the progress sex offenders are making in treatment. Frank suggested that as one change he would like to see.
The debate about what to do with sex offenders began when Dru Sjodin was kidnapped and killed in 2003.
Frank asked state leaders — including Gov. Mark Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk — to design a constitutional treatment program. They are to meet later this summer.
Since Sjodin’s death, most politicians have leaned toward keeping the state’s worst sex offenders in prison or at a state hospital as long as possible. But Frank ruled that keeping them indefinitely hospitalized violates the U.S. Constitution
“There may be changes that could be made immediately, short of ordering the closure of the facilities, to remedy this problem,” Frank wrote.
The attorney for sex offenders who brought the class-action lawsuit was happy that Frank said that the 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 was frank in his ruling.
“The stark reality is something very wrong with this state’s method of dealing with sex offenders,” Frank wrote, offering several potential remedies for state leaders to consider.
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.”
If they cannot resolve the issue, he warned that he could close the program and release offenders.
The judge 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.
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, Rodriguez completed his 23-year prison term and was released, but was not committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Treatment Program.
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 dealing with it.
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.
No sex offender has been fully released from the treatment program.
Keeping an offender in the treatment program costs $120,000 a year, three times the cost of an average prison inmate.
The St. Pioneer Press, a Forum News Service media partner, contributed to this report.