Minnesota's sex offender program is 'unconstitutional,' judge rules

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A federal judge has ruled Wednesday that the Minnesota Sex Offender Treatment Program (MSOP) is unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank was highly critical of the program following the end of a six-week trial after a lawsuit against the state was filed by more than 700 people committed to MSOP facilities.

Residents of the facilities had argued the program is unconstitutional as no offenders – even those with low-level convictions – have been fully released from the high-security facilities they were committed to since the program began 20 years ago.

Judge Frank agreed, saying it is "fundamental to our notions of a free society that we do not imprison citizens because we fear that they might commit a crime in the future."

"The stark reality is that there is something very wrong with this state's method of dealing with sex offenders," Judge Donovan Frank wrote in a ruling Wednesday, adding: "In light of the structure of the MSOP and the history of its operation, no one has any realistic hope of ever getting out of this 'civil” detention."

MPR News reports the ruling will not mean that MSOP facilities are shut down, nor that those committed will be immediately released.

A provisional date of Aug. 10 has been set for more court proceedings "to fashion suitable remedies" to MSOP's problems, with the judge having previously described the system as being "clearly broken" and requiring "substantial changes."

There are currently 714 offenders committed to MSOP facilities, with that number expected to rise to 1,215 by 2022.

But following the ruling, Gov. Mark Dayton defended the program, saying: "We continue to believe that both the Minnesota Sex Offender Program and the civil commitment statute are constitutional. We will work with the Attorney General to defend Minnesota’s law," according to the Pioneer Press.

What's the controversy?

Those enrolled in the MSOP are not prisoners. They are sex offenders who have served their sentences in prison who, after evaluation, are deemed to require further treatment because they have emotional or behavioral problems, or other mental health issues.

They are then civilly committed to receive treatment through the MSOP at two high-security facilities – in Moose Lake or St. Peter – for an "indefinite" period of time.

The problem is, only three people have been provisionally released from the program in the 20 years it has been running (none have been fully released), which the 700 offenders who sued the state said was unconstitutional.

They argued their treatment wasn't regularly reviewed to see whether more was required or whether they could be released and provided with treatment either in the community, or in lower-security facilities.

In the court ruling, it says that Minnesota has the highest rate of civilly committed sex offenders in the country, at 128.6 per million people. It also revealed that there was a "tremendous growth" in referrals to the program following the kidnap and murder of Minnesota student Dru Sjodin in late 2003.

"The evidence clearly establishes that hopelessness pervades the environment at the MSOP," the ruling says, "and that there is an emotional climate of despair among the facilities’ residents, particularly among residents at the Moose Lake facility."

Reforms took too long

Minnesota's legal leaders, including Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson and Judge Frank, have over the past two years urged state lawmakers to restructure the program.

But the reforms have been too-long in coming, with state Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson previously stating that her department had made a start on making some changes, but full reforms are proving difficult because of a lack of funding.

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.

Critics have also pointed to the financial cost to running the program in its current form, with FOX 9 previously reporting it costs the state $73 million per year.

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