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Court ruling this week could upend sex offender treatment program

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A judge's ruling expected Wednesday could dramatically change Minnesota's controversial sex offender treatment program.

U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank, who heard several weeks of testimony during the trial of a class-action lawsuit, has already said he believes the program is “clearly broken” and has urged Minnesota lawmakers to overhaul it, but that has yet to be done.

A group of the more than 700 civilly committed sex offenders sued the state alleging that it is unconstitutional to keep them locked up indefinitely as part of the Minnesota Sex Offender Treatment Program (MSOP).

The people in the program are not prisoners. They have completed their prison sentences and in most cases have been civilly committed to receive treatment at one of the two MSOP facilities – in Moose Lake or St. Peter – for an indefinite period of time.

The suit alleges the state doesn't regularly review the offenders' treatment progress to determine whether they can be released.

In the 20 years of the program, only three people have been released.

During the February trial, state Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson acknowledged her department is "taking too long" to reform the program based on recommendations from a state task force. She testified some changes are being made, but said they can't move more quickly because of a lack of funding.

It's widely expected that Judge Frank will rule the program is unconstitutional, the Star Tribune reports.

Frank has signaled to lawmakers many times that the sex offender program was on shaky legal ground and urged them to fix it. But even with those warnings, the Legislature didn't take steps to address the issues in either of the last two sessions.

The Associated Press reports that Gov. Dayton proposed a measure in the latest budget bill to at least begin addressing the judges concerns, but it got pushed aside during negotiations late in the budget process.

Assuming Frank sides with the plaintiffs, he probably won't order any offenders to be released right away, according to the Star Tribune. But he could order the state to take any number of immediate steps to reform the program.

The state has been laying plans to move more offenders into the community, in part by contracting with several agencies to provide housing and treatment for them, the Star Tribune notes.

But the paper also points out that many communities in Minnesota are likely to vigorously oppose any housing in their cities for released sex offenders.

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