By Ruben Rosario
Sex offenders, the modern-day lepers of society and a politician's favorite whipping boy, are back in the news.
We're talking about Minnesota's almost 700 men and one woman civilly committed after most served their prison sentences and were deemed too dangerous to be released from secure prison-like state treatment facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter. Detainees include about 50 who were civilly committed as juveniles but never convicted of crimes as an adult.
In what could turn out to be violations of their constitutional rights, they are essentially serving life sentences without parole. That was supposedly never the intent of civil commitment laws, but that's how it's playing out here. In nearly two decades since the program began, only one sex offender has been conditionally released. Minnesota is the nation's leader in indefinitely detaining such offenders after they have completed their prison terms.
As a survivor of childhood sex abuse, I can say that I detest these types of criminals and offenders. I know what these predators rob from their victims. But another thing I detest is political grandstanding.
Gov. Mark Dayton was right when he called the latest flap a "political circus" after Minnesota Rep. Kurt Zellers, a former House speaker and a 2014 Republican gubernatorial hopeful, blasted him for not opposing a decision to conditionally release a serial rapist from Moose Lake to a less restrictive environment. He called Dayton's stand "insensitive" to the feelings of the rapist's numerous victims.
That's an easy-to-make and disingenuous low blow, in my book. But Dayton added to the political shenanigans by freezing any conditional discharges in the future until the Legislature takes up the issue for review in the coming session.
Say what? That body had a chance to do something constructive on this issue earlier this year and failed miserably.
In response to a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of the sex offenders locked up in Moose Lake and St. Peter, a nonpartisan civil commitment advisory task force was created late last year. Made up of some of the brightest legal, judicial and legislative minds in the state, it reviewed the civil commitment and referral process for sex offenders as well as less restrictive commitment options and other ways to reform what is now the indefinite incarceration and warehousing of these folks in prison-like environments. Its initial recommendations to the Legislature and the state Department of Human Services, which runs the facilities, included creation of adequate funding for less-secure residential facilities to become operational within a "reasonable period of time."
Other recommendations were adopted in a proposed bill passed in the Senate earlier this year. It died an expected death in the highly partisan House. Most Democrats supported the reforms proposed; most Republicans opposed them.
The advisory task force members' final report to DHS is scheduled to be issued Dec. 1. Given the history, they might as well roll it up in a big ball and throw it into the nearest wastebasket.
And that would be a shame. This highly emotional, volatile and complex problem requires true leadership bereft of politics. It requires well-intentioned people who can put aside their own visceral views and come up with a plan that best ensures public safety while not violating constitutional rights.
JUDGE WILL DO LEGISLATORS' JOB
The reality is that politics will be nearly impossible to strip from the process. No one on either side of the aisle wants to be blamed in the event one of these offenders is released outright, goes out and reoffends. Imagine an opponent's campaign ad. That is the one main reason why virtually no one has come out from these facilities. But the law of the land says we can't indefinitely lock up people who already served their time if they are deemed ready to be released after treatment. We're not talking about the worst of the worst, the ones who will never be rehabilitated and should never be released.
So, it will go down as it did 20 years ago in Washington, the first state to pass a civil commitment law. Its program came under a federal court consent decree four years later because of its reluctance to release folks deemed treatable and ready for release. The decree, which lasted nearly 13 years, ended up forcing changes the state should have legislatively made on its own.
Dan Gustafson, the court-appointed attorney who filed the class-action lawsuit, said he was "disappointed" at the fear-mongering antics and conduct of both the legislative and executive leadership on an important state constitutional issue.
"All rhetoric aside, I feel there is no intention at all to make any changes absent a federal ruling on this," he said Friday. "Right now, they do not have the political will to do what they all know they should do."
A critical hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for Dec. 18 in front of U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank.
I don't blame any victim of these folks for wanting to keep them in confinement. But if raw emotions dictated laws, there would be bodies lying on the street and chaos.
Unless there are grown-ups in the Legislature this year, I predict some officeholders will find it convenient once again to be derelict in their duties on this issue and allow a federal judge in St. Paul to play the fall guy and do their work for them.