By CHRIS SERRES
An independent task force has recommended sweeping changes to Minnesota’s controversial system for confining sex offenders indefinitely after their prison terms end, according to a report released Monday.
“There is broad consensus that the current system of civil commitment of sex offenders in Minnesota captures too many people and keeps many of them too long,” the report states.
The 15-member task force, appointed by Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, recommends (PDF) that the state Legislature establish a centralized and independent screening unit with statewide jurisdiction to determine whether a person meets the criteria for commitment to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. A decision by the screening unit would not be binding, but would be admissible in any court proceedings considering a petition to commit a sex offender.
The recommendations would also shift the burden of proof to the state to prove that a sex offender is too dangerous to be released in the community and needs to remain in confinement. The task force recommends that the Legislature modify current law to provide for a biennial review of the commitment of sex offenders, without requiring that the offender request the review.
Unlike other states that civilly commit sex offenders, Minnesota currently does not allow for automatic, periodic judicial review of civil commitments of sex offenders.
The final report also contains strong language addressing the commitment of juveniles. “No person should be civilly committed based solely on behavior that occurred while that person was a juvenile,” the report states. Some 52 of the 698 people confined at Minnesota’s high-security sex offender treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter have not been convicted of an adult crime, according to state records.
The task force was created in part to address claims that the sex offender program is unconstitutional because offenders who are committed are almost never released from confinement — amounting to what many argue is a de facto life sentence. On Dec. 18, a U.S. District Court judge in St. Paul will begin hearing arguments on the constitutionality of the program.
The size and cost of MSOP has exploded over the past decade.
In 2003, after the kidnapping and murder of Minnesota college student Dru Sjodin, the state Department of Corrections began recommending more sex offenders for civil commitment. The program’s population jumped from 199 in June 2003 to 698 today, and Minnesota now confines more sex offenders, per capita, than any other state.