By Rupa Shenoy
ST. PAUL - The future of Minnesota's sex offender program may become clearer this summer.
The state has long been criticized for its program, which indefinitely holds sex offenders whom judges in county courts think might commit new crimes, even after the offenders have served their sentences. Lawmakers did not change the program during the session that recently ended, and that could mean the federal courts will soon force the state to act.
Before the legislative session began, former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson set up interviews with the news media and sent a message: If legislators didn't act quickly, a federal judge in a class-action suit would rule the Minnesota Sex Offender Program unconstitutional. The program is supposed to provide treatment, but it has released only one of about 700 people being indefinitely detained. The program costs the state $326 a day to hold and provide treatment for each offender at two secure facilities at Moose Lake and St. Peter -- three times the average cost of keeping an offender in prison.
A few lawmakers tried to pass a handful of bills to reform the program. But some Republicans thought Magnuson was bluffing. At an April 10 House Judiciary Finance and Policy Committee, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, advocated addressing the problem with a mandatory 60-year minimum prison sentence for the worst predatory sexual offenders.
Cornish put it bluntly: "We don't really have a huge obligation to treat them if we just sentence them."
He reiterated his stance May 30 in an email to other legislators. "If anyone in the future presents a bill to release these people, ask them to take the 'least offensive' criminal history of any one of the level III sex offenders in the program and read it on the House Floor," Cornish wrote. "Even the 'least offensive' of any of them would turn your stomach and make you wary of having this person in your community."
There are a few possibilities for the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. One is that the program will remain as it is. In a May 30 email to MPR News, Cornish said he thinks the U.S. District Court judges overseeing the class-action suit, Judge Donovan Frank and Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Keyes, will not force the state to change its practice of indefinitely holding offenders.
Magnuson, who is leading a commission that was mandated by the judges, disagreed. The panel is working on recommendations for changing the sex offender program, with its final findings due in December.
"The judge is going to bring out a broadsword and he's going to ... simply chop it into small bits and then say, 'Fix it,'" Magnuson said. "And he's not going to have much patience particularly for the state. They've had plenty of time to look at this, and he's going to tell them they have to get it done now."
When a federal judge in Washington state found that its sex offender civil commitment process unconstitutional in the 1990s, the ruling kicked off 15 years of court oversight of reform. Eventually, Washington set up a less restrictive community-based transitional facility for offenders.
Something similar might happen here, Magnuson said, and Minnesota's detainees will not be suddenly be released from the program in a flood.
Lucinda Jesson, the commissioner of the Department of Human Services, which oversees the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, said that for now her department can try to address some of the problems detailed in the class-action suit. For example, Jesson said the department plans more frequent mental health assessments.
"If I had a crystal ball and could read a federal judge's mind, it would be helpful, but I don't," Jesson said. "I really can't predict what a federal court will do in this situation, but I do know that we are taking this very seriously."
Jesson added: "What we can have by doing more regular assessments is ... We can make sure they're moving through the phases as quickly as appropriate. And I think some additional assessments, to the extent we have money in our budget to do that, is a step in the right direction."
Yet another possibility for the program is that the people represented in the class-action suit could settle with the Department of Human Services.
The DHS may agree to more generous terms in a settlement than the judges would order, said Dan Gustafson, the court-appointed attorney for the sex offenders suing the state.
"I can't go into the details of what we've talked about," Gustafson said, "but we've made several proposals, and the state has responded to them ... I think that the executive branch of the state and even many of the legislators recognize that the ... current program isn't working. They continue to commit people, and no one ever gets out. But it's a very difficult political program to solve because nobody wants to shoulder the political burden of changing a program that might release somebody out to the public who's perceived to be dangerous."
The families of those being held in the sex offender program are watching the situation anxiously. [name withheld]'s son was 18 when he went in to the sex offender program. [name withheld] is now 33. [name withheld] said her son has no idea what it's like to hold a full-time job, search for an apartment or balance a checkbook.
"And the longer he's there, the harder it's going to be for him to become un-institutionalized," [name withheld] said. "And to learn life. He has no idea what life's about. He hasn't had the chance to live any."
[name withheld] said her son may never have that chance without a federal judge's action.