The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 20, 2013

Commissioner deals with state's worst problems

Sex offenders, mentally ill and dangerous pose challenges for Commissioner Lucinda Jesson

The Mankato Free Press

---- — Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson has a lot on her plate these days from major reform of sex offender management and facilities to figuring out how to reduce injuries for employees who work with the state’s most dangerous and violent criminals.

When she sat down with Free Press writers and editors recently, she offered a few answers with no illusions about the challenges ahead. Still, she says the state and the department have been making progress on some of the state’s most costly and difficult problems.

With the state and taxpayers staring down a possible federal court order to release sex offenders or at least prove why they seem to be permanently incarcerated, Jesson had hoped the Legislature would have provided the solution through legislation that would have set rules for committing sex offenders, treating, and releasing them that would pass constitutional muster.

Some of that happened in a bipartisan Senate bill last year that stalled in the House. Still, Jesson can and did take actions as a commissioner to address parts of those problems. The sex offender system increased the speed and frequency at which sex offenders are evaluated.

Some of the sex offenders are elderly and sick and have very little mobility and Jesson says they could be put in less restrictive facilities with little risk to the public. She says some use walkers or wheelchairs or are at the end of cancer treatment. Some have IQs of 60. “They don’t need to be in a highly secure, expensive facility.” The department has proposed moving some of them to a facility it already operates in Cambridge.

The department also has just received responses for a request for proposals on setting up less restrictive yet secure community facilities. They’ve ask private providers which of the clients might be safely managed in other facilities.

In the meantime, the federal courts are ruling on cases brought by sex offenders housed at the state facilities saying they are not treatment facilities at all but are more like prisons. There seems to be widespread agreement the state must do something and Jesson says more thorough evaluation of some “clients” of the facilities show they are ready for less restrictive but still monitored release. One has been released and is living in his own apartment that is secure 24 hours a day. Two or three others may gain provisional release this year.

That should help federal judges and the task force charged with recommending state action that they indeed are attempting to treat and release some of these offenders. Jesson is quick to point out many may never get out because they are required to go through treatment before getting out, and many simply choose not to go into treatment.

But more recently, as a few offenders are moving through the system, passing treatment, others are signing up for treatment. Still, with 700 offenders in the facilities, it is going slowly.

But the Legislature still needs to consider reforming the laws and opening or contracting for smaller, secure community-based facilities. Judges, Jesson says, are reluctant to release offenders if there is no place for them to go.

The problems are no less challenging at the St. Peter Security Hospital, which is on the same campus as the sex offender facility but is a completely different program. The St. Peter facility was rocked by an explosive chief executive who came in a couple of years ago and was ultimately fired for his inability to operate the facility and manage staff. Several top psychiatrists left, and the facility is still looking to get back up to full staff on those positions.

Jesson continued the partial license revocation of the facility for another year because she saw there was still not enough progress being made in terms of dealing with violent patients and the use of restraints. Too many employees were still getting injured and there were big gaps in communication between staff and medical staff. One patient banged his head on a concrete wall for a time and was not restrained. Another had a stroke and was not attended to for four hours.

Jesson sees these problems as real and serious and, therefore, she restricted the license of the facility. That means it gets much tougher and more complete oversight from the DHS licensing division.

These facilities deal with, hold and are charged with reforming in some instances the most difficult and dreadful human behaviors. The people who are trying to make this happen deserve support of the Legislature and taxpayers who must realize these problems can be solved in ways that minimize risk to the public and pass constitutional muster while restraining the runaway costs of permanent incarceration.

Joe Spear is editor of The Free Press. Contact him at 344-6382 or