When a task force commissioned by a federal court makes further recommendations at the end of this year for Minnesota to reform its sex offender program, the pressure on the Legislature to do so will be turned up a notch.
That’s because last year the task force made recommendations and the Legislature was not able to pass any of them. While the Senate passed a bipartisan bill that addressed some of the issues, a similar bill only passed one House committee, and that without any Republican votes.
The pressure on the Legislature will be turned up this year given the comments of former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, who was appointed to a panel directed by the federal courts to recommend changes to the program.
That task force was established as an intermediate step in a pending class action court case where federal courts were siding with several patients or inmates of Minnesota sex offender facilities.
Magnuson told a Legislative committee last year the courts were ready to declare the program unconstitutional, but couldn’t say what would happen should the Legislature fail to act and adopt some of the court recommendations.
While the Legislature failed to act, the Minnesota Department of Human Services has made some administrative progress on its own and taken steps that likely have the task force seeing that the state is at least trying to adopt some of its recommendations.
The task force, which also includes former federal Judge James Rozenbaum, was formed when a federal court suggested in a class action case that the state was a very shaky constitutional grounds running a sex offender program where for decades not one patient had been released.
The task force recommended Minnesota develop a continuum of dealing with sex offenders that expanded options beyond full commitment or full release. The court recommended intermediate treatment steps be developed and the state establish less restrictive facilities.
Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson and her department have taken steps in that direction. They have proposed moving some elderly and sick sex offenders to a less restrictive, yet secure state facility in Cambridge. The Department of Human Services has issued a request for proposals for government and private entities for establishing and managing less restrictive, community-based treatment facilities around the state.
Jesson told The Free Press in an interview Monday that many of those proposals have been submitted and will soon be reviewed.
But the Legislature also must do more this upcoming session. The bipartisan bill passed by the Senate was a good start. It authorized the establishment of less restrictive yet secure facilities and required the evaluation of sex offenders every other year to determine their response to the treatment programs and determine who might be eligible for a provisional release. It also allowed courts to determine not who should be civilly committed, but also where they should be treated.
The politics clearly are preventing even small reasonable changes from happening. The House committee vote on the plan was approved 5-3 with Democrats voting yes and Republicans voting no, but a roll call vote was requested to get people on the record. Committee Chair Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, was correct in seeing the purpose for the roll call vote: political payback or use in political advertising.
It’s unfortunate this issue has come to be so political. Republicans in the Senate did support and help pass the bill by Mankato area Sen. Kathy Sheran. House Republicans claim they can come up with a better bill that will still pass constitutional muster. Let’s hope they can. Something must be done.
Magnuson -- who was appointed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty when he was on the Supreme Court -- as a task force member last year told the committee: “Courts don’t sit on lawsuits waiting for states or parties in their own good time to resolve the issues…if the Legislature doesn’t do it, the federal court will.”