Minnesotans must wait to see sex offender treatment plan changes

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.

 

Federal judge orders Minnesota sex offender treatment to be fixed

Dru Sjodin, slain Unversity of North Dakota student

Dru Sjodin, slain Unversity of North Dakota student

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.

 

Legislative notebook: Senate debates childcare, PCA unions

Franson

By Don Davis

The Minnesota Senate Tuesday night was en route to approving legislation allowing child care workers and personal care attendants to join unions.

Supporters say such action would allow them to negotiate better payments from the state.

The House already passed its version of the bill and Gov. Mark Dayton supports it.

“We want to prepare children so they are successful in life,” Benton County child care provider Karla Scapanski said. “Collective bargaining is a partnership for that success.”

But opponents, mostly Republicans, say personal care attendants and child care providers are private businesses and should not be part of unions.

Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said unions that support the bills “are hiding behind children” in an effort to make money.

Franson said state subsidies that are supposed to help poor families afford child care would be diverted to required payments to unions.

If the bill becomes law, it likely will be challenged in court.

The bill would affect 11,000 child care workers who provide care in their own homes. It also would affect personal care attendants who provide care for the elderly and disabled, sometimes their own families.

“Providers want a union because they have seen the benefits unions have given providers in other states,” St. Paul child care provider Lisa Thompson said.

Supporters say they would be able to negotiate more money with union representation than they receive from the state now.

Debate continued late Tuesday.

Sex offender change

A federal judge says Minnesota must change how it deals with sex offenders who have completed their sentences, so the Senate Tuesday voted 44-21 to tweak the process.

Under the bill by Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, sex offenders would have a better chance of being released from a state treatment program. Just one man has graduated from the program.

A federal judge says the state cannot hold sex offenders indefinitely. If they are committed after finishing their prison sentences, the judge said, they must have a chance to be released from the prison-like treatment center.

The Sheran bill would establish a process where, like now, a judge would be able to commit a sex offender to the treatment program. But the offender would receive two hearings a year to see if he should remain in treatment.

“Once a person has completed their time for crime, they have the right to move forward,” Sheran said.

But Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, a former sheriff, said the public is concerned that sex offenders could be let loose.

“We must move very cautiously here,” the Alexandria Republican said.

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said he might support keeping sex offenders in prison longer. A prison costs about $100 a day per prisoner, while treatment costs more than $300 a day.

If the state does not change its ways, the federal judge can order changes that state officials say may be far more expensive or result in releasing more sex offenders.

No pay say

Legislators would give up decisions about how much they get paid under a proposed constitutional amendment by Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia.

His bill received a committee approval and heads to the House Rules Committee.

A similar bill sponsored by Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, awaits Senate committee action.

The plan would establish a 16-member commission appointed by the governor and Supreme Court chief justice to set legislators’ salaries.

Currently, a committee recommends legislators’ and other state officials’ salaries, but the full Legislature makes the decision. Under the constitutional amendment proposal, the committee would continue to recommend other salaries, but the new commission would deal only with lawmakers’ pay.

Legislative pay of $31,140 a year has not been raised in 14 years.

“In order to attract the kind of people from the private sector or even the public sector we have to have some expectation that at some point they can be compensated,” Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, said.

If the proposal passes legislative committees this year or next year, it would appear on the November 2014 ballot.

Dayton signs sex offender notification bill

By Danielle Nordine

Sex offenders released from a state treatment program will be subject of community notification immediately.

Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill plugging what some called a loophole in state law.

He signed the bill hours after the Senate approved a bill Thursday that would require community notification when a sex offender is released from the state treatment program to a halfway house.

The measure passed 61-0 in the Senate after passing 127-1 Monday in the House.

The bill came in response to the expected release of a 64-year-old man who confessed to sexually molesting 29 youths.

The House and Senate bypassed typical rules to quickly move the bill through the Legislature. Representatives originally were told the offender could be released this week, but the Human Services Department, which runs the program, now has confirmed the earliest he could leave is March 12.

Currently, the public must be notified when an offender is released from prison, but there is no notification requirement for those leaving the state program.

Clarence Opheim will be the first to be discharged from the treatment program.

Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, voted for the bill but, like some others, questioned the process. He said he would have appreciated more time to discuss the bill in committees and have questions answered.

‘Emergency’ bill sex offender notification bill planned

The Minnesota House is expected to pass Monday what leaders term an emergency bill to ensure Minnesotans are notified when a sex offender is released from a state treatment program to a halfway house.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said that House members will be asked to suspend normal procedures that would slow down the bill’s passage so a law can be in place before Clarence Opheim can be released.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said Democrats probably will support the bill and Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said he would expect the Senate to follow the House’s lead. Gov. Mark Dayton said that if the bill is as Zellers described, he could support it.

The issue arose when a judicial panel decided to release Opheim, the first time an offender has been released after being court-ordered to take state sex offender treatment indefinitely.

Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said that once Opheim is released from the treatment program to a Twin Cities halfway house, he will be monitored around the clock, including by an escort if he leaves the house.

Jesson said he probably will be under tight surveillance the rest of his life.

The state is being sued for keeping sex offenders locked up indefinitely, even after their prison terms end.

While the community often is notified of a sex offender’s release, that is not the case if one is let out of the state treatment program and goes to a halfway house.

House panel OKs longer sex offender sentences

Gauthier

An 8-year-old effort to keep sex offenders in jail longer began a new trek on Tuesday through the Minnesota Legislature.

The House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee unanimously approved a proposal that would force many of the worst offenders to spend 60 years in prison, followed by a decade of supervised release. Those “worst of the worst” sex offenders would serve twice the current sentences under the bill by Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder.

“The public expects us to do something drastic with sex offenders,” Cornish said.

A key to Cornish’s bill is that after someone is found guilty of a serious sexual assault, he could be sent to a second trial to determine whether a jury determines that he is a “predatory sex offender.” If that finding is made, the higher penalties kick in.

Cornish’s measure is the latest attempt to get tough on sex offenders, which started shortly after the November 2003 kidnapping and murder of Dru Sjodin from a Grand Forks, N.D., mall.

Sjodin’s body was found the next April near Crookston, Minn. Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. was charged, and eventually convicted in federal court and sentenced to death. He had been released from a Minnesota prison in May 2003 after serving time on a sex charge.

Since then, lawmakers and then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty lengthened sex offender sentences.

The bill by Cornish represents a change in tactics, with the second trial to impose higher penalties on those most likely to reoffend.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, authored a similar bill, but his measure has not received a committee hearing.

Under the Cornish bill, the state corrections commissioner could release a predatory sex offender early only if he can prove that he no longer poses a threat to public safety and can be reintegrated into society.

Cornish said that his bill would be less expensive than the current procedure, where many offenders are sent to state hospitals after completing their sentences, which costs three times as much as prison stays.

Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson, said he does not think any prisoner would get enough treatment to be released early.

Rep. Kerry Gauthier, DFL-Duluth, said he is fine with putting more offenders in prison, but said he is concerned that the Corrections Department may not be able to find enough therapists willing to work with prisoners.

“We’re not getting enough treatment (for sex offenders) because we can’t get enough people,” said Gauthier, himself a therapist.

Pawlenty seeks longer sex offender sentences

Pawlenty

Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants to double some sex offender sentences, the latest in a series of related moves over the years.

Under the plan the Republican governor announced Tuesday, a first-degree sex offender would receive a sentence of at least 25 years, compared to 12 years now.

Pawlenty’s plan received mixed reaction from key Democratic lawmakers.

Sen. Mary Olson of Bemidji, vice chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she likes extending prison sentences. However, Judiciary Finance Chairman Leo Foley of Coon Rapids, a retired state trooper, said he would prefer to spend money on rehabilitating sex offenders than just keeping them in prison longer.

"It’s not really going to do anything," Foley said of Pawlenty’s plan.

Pawlenty summed up his philosophy about sex offenders: "They need to be kept off the street for as long as possible."

The governor said his proposal would cost the state no more than $5 million, and no increase in cost would come for years.

While he won legislative approval to give life sentences to some who are convicted of particularly heinous sex crimes, Pawlenty said that did not go far enough.

In the past, he has suggested the death penalty for some especially heinous crimes, which has not passed.

Tuesday’s proposal is the latest in a series from both parties to get tough on sex offenders, and longer sentences have been approved. The movement began after the death of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin in 2003 and the arrest of convicted sex offender Alfonso Rodriguez in the crime. Sjodin’s body was found near Crookston, Minn.

Sex offender numbers have risen 41 percent in the past decade, with 1,646 in Minnesota prisons now, Corrections Commissioner Joan Fabian said.

While calling for increased sentences, Pawlenty also asked the Legislature to approve $89 million to expand a Moose Lake facility to hold more sex offenders who have completed their prison terms.

State law requires sex offenders most deemed to reoffend to be sent indefinitely to the sex offender program for treatment, but no one ever has been released.

Public works funding bills written by legislative Democrats do not include the Moose Lake funding. However, Pawlenty said, the bills include funding for projects that are much less important such as civic centers in Mankato, Rochester and St. Cloud.

Last year, Fabian’s department examined records of 850 sex offenders and recommended 114 of them be sent to Moose Lake, Fabian said.

Pawlenty said that "it is very difficult to treat them."

Foley disagreed, calling for more emphasis on treatment than Pawlenty wants.

As a lawyer, Olson said, she fears the treatment program could be ruled unconstitutional because people sent there never get out. Olson and Pawlenty both said cost also is a concern for offenders in Moose Lake, which costs $325 a day for each offender, compared to $63 for prisoners.

On the other hand, she has been talking about increasing prison sentences, much like Pawlenty wants.

Pawlenty orders TV sold

Gov. Tim Pawlenty today ordered the removal of giant plasma television sets from the Moose Lake sex offender treatment facility.

He called the decision to buy them "boneheaded" when smaller, fewer, simpler and cheaper sets would work fine.

The Star Tribune of Minneapolis today printed a story about the 24 50-inch TV sets, costing nearly $2,300 each. Supporters of the TVs say they make offenders easier to manage.

Pawlenty said he ordered his staff to try to sell the TV sets.

"We have 50,000 state employees and one of them does something unwise every day," the governor said.

Web use limited

A plan to restrict high-risk sex offenders from accessing social networking Internet sites awaits Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s signature.

The Legislature approved a public safety bill that prohibits high-risk offenders on intensive supervised release from using social networking Web sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, and Internet chat rooms.

The legislation also makes it illegal to use mobile phones and text messages to solicit children for sexual acts. Rep. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, said the provision expands laws against child solicitation.