By Mark Albert
Created by court order, frustrated by Legislative inaction, and determined to fulfill its mission by a year-end deadline, Minnesota's Sex Offender Civil Commitment Advisory Task Force met Monday for the first time since lawmakers at the Capitol adjourned last month, pressing forward with redesigning the state's troubled program for civilly-committed sex offenders.
"Everybody's pretty clear this is going to change and it has to," declared task force vice chair James Rosenbaum, a retired federal judge.
Chair Eric Magnuson, the former chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, was equally blunt when he stated, "It's pretty clear that if this system is not changed, it will cost the state of Minnesota millions of dollars more."
Each of the state's 687 committed sex offenders cost taxpayers about $120,000 a year. This year, the tab will be roughly $82 million, with an average of 50 more sex offenders civilly committed each year, according to state estimates.
The task force was created by a federal judge to determine less restrictive alternatives to the current all-or-nothing secure treatment facility structure; find ways to reduce the current population, shifting some to halfway houses or group homes that currently don't exist; and overhaul screening criteria for who is committed and who is released.
- It's not a "treatment" facility if nobody ever gets released, it's just another prison!
The task force came into existence as part of a lawsuit filed by the committed sex offenders, who argue the Sex Offender Program is unconstitutional because, in practice, virtually no one is actually treated and released, thereby creating an indefinite incarceration system even after the offenders have served their criminal sentence.
In the history of the current sex offender program, only one offender, 65 year-old [name withheld], has been provisionally discharged; he is currently at a group home in south Minneapolis under the supervision of the Dept. of Human Services.
Minnesota has the highest per capita number of civilly-committed sex offenders of any state.
The task force had made recommendations to the Legislature (PDF) in December for less-secure alternatives. A bill (SF 1014) passed the Senate in the closing days of the 2013 session, but the companion legislation (HF 1139) stalled in the House.
"It's political theater sometimes and not fact-finding," lamented Rep. Tina Liebling (DFL-Rochester), who carried the House bill and sits on the task force. Seeming to take a swipe at the caucus leadership in the DFL-controlled House, Liebling said, "Leadership had to make a decision that people were going to kind of hold hands and go forward. That didn't happen."
Rep. Jim Abeler, a Republican from Anoka, added, "It seems like in the end, both sides got cold feet and it's, it's just too bad."
A court-ordered evaluation (PDF) earlier this year found one out of every eight committed sex offender clients sampled were not placed in the appropriate treatment phase and that "large group size and frequent staff changes interfered with client progress," along with treatment "thresholds" that "may be too high."
In a detailed response (PDF), MSOP administrators said they have began implementing a series of reforms to its treatment programs and staffing.
But it remains for lawmakers to alter who gets committed, who gets released and where they are placed - or some believe the courts may do it for them.