By Larry Oakes
It looks as though a task force assigned to write reforms of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) will have to work down to the wire to meet a court-ordered deadline to produce its first set of recommendations early next month.
The Sex Offender Civil Commitment Advisory Task Force has until Dec. 3 to recommend less-restrictive options for dealing with at least some of the 670 offenders it now confines to the MSOP's two prison-like treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter.
A U.S. District Court magistrate set that deadline in August in response to a class-action lawsuit by a group of the offenders who claim it's unconstitutional to keep them locked indefinitely in a program that hasn't fully discharged anyone in its entire 18 years.
The task force, chaired by retired Minnesota Supreme Court chief justice Eric Magnuson, met for third time Thursday at the State Office Building in St. Paul. Several of the 20-member body said they're finding it extremely difficult to come up with reform ideas that will have a chance of getting passed in the Legislature.
For example, the task force already has identified that the state has very few options for housing and treating civilly committed sex offenders other than the highly secure Moose Lake and St. Peter sites.
But suggesting legislative language for the creation of less-restrictive programs, half-way houses and other facilities is problematic because any proposals are likely to spark opposition from people living near the proposed programs and also from politicians from that district, several members agreed.
"The public reaction is fear," said task force member Roberta Opheim, the state's ombudsman for mental health and (people with) developmental disabilities. "I think we have to set statewide (location) standards instead of (trying to meet) individual city zoning requirements."
Magnuson asked members, who include judges, legislators, treatment experts, victim's advocates and others, to submit suggested language for recommendations as soon as possible, so they can be finalized at the next meeting, scheduled for Nov. 29.
If the state fails to made adequate progress toward reforming its civil commitment system and the MSOP, the federal court could essentially take over the program.
Per-capita, the state has the most civilly committed sex offenders in the nation. Each costs taxpayers $293 per day, compared to about $90 a day for inmates getting sex offender treatment in prison.
After issuing its recommendations for less-restrictive confinement options, the task force then must turn its attention to reforming the civil commitment process and the process for moving offenders through treatment and out of the system. Magnuson said he expects the task force to finish its work in December 2013.