The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 10, 2013

Time for action on sex offender program

Why it matters: Lawmakers already have a framework to begin fixing broken sex offender program.

The Mankato Free Press

---- — A final report from a state task force released last week was a harsh review of Minnesota’s Sex Offender Program and offered a framework for how to begin fixing it.

Now it’s up to state lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton to pass legislation making the changes necessary to modify the process while still protecting public safety.

Fortunately, much of the framework for legislation already exists in a bill pushed by Mankato Sen. Kathy Sheran and passed in the Senate last year.

The sex offender program civilly commits those who are considered a danger to the public, even though they have served all of their prison time. The number of those committed and being held in St. Peter and Moose Lake has ballooned to 700. Those commitments are sought by prosecutors in the counties the offenders lived in when they were initially convicted.

The task force notes that the system “captures too many people.” That’s due in part because there are no consistent criteria in the state as to who should be committed. County prosecutors may feel political pressure to commit someone rather than risk the possibility the person will commit another crime in the future.

The lack of consistency leads some counties to seek to commit people at a much higher rate than in other counties.

The task force recommends a state panel of former judges be set up to review all cases of sex offenders released from prison and make a recommendation on whether civil commitment should be sought. The decisions wouldn’t be binding but would be used during civil commitment court proceedings.

It’s a good idea. Even better would be for such a panel to handle all the commitment cases rather than county attorneys.

The report also suggests some offenders in the program be held and treated at less secure facilities than the prison-like settings of the hospitals at St. Peter and Moose Lake. Some in the system are mentally low functioning and other old and ailing. Keeping them in high security facilities is too costly, doesn’t provide the type of treatment needed and puts those offenders at risk of being assaulted by other predatory offenders in the facilities.

The problems with the program are coming to a head because a federal judge has indicated the state’s system may be unconstitutional because virtually no one is released from the program — effectively creating a life sentence for people who have already served their prison time.

Many Republicans in the Minnesota House have resisted sweeping changes to the program, saying no court has deemed it unconstitutional. They say changes, such as those in Sheran’s bill could risk public safety. And they argue the task force and supporters of change are simply trying to rush the Legislature to act through scare tactics.

But the problems with the program have been known and discussed for many years.

Yes, public safety needs to be a high priority and Minnesotans are justifiably worried about what those convicted of sex crimes might do in the future. But the state’s uneven system of civil commitment and the fact it effectively imprisons people for life for something they might do is constitutionally unjustified.

Other views on this topic

“I believe that the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP), if properly administered, meets the scrutiny demanded by the U.S. Constitution

MSOP is a program under which sexual psychopaths and dangerous offenders are civilly committed to a secure facility for treatment. Almost every patient has already served time in prison for sex offenses, and many have committed dozens of acts of sexual violence.

In every case, the patient has been determined by a court to have a mental illness, disorder or dysfunction that renders the person highly likely to engage in future acts of harmful sexual conduct. MSOP costs $120,000 per patient/per year.

While there are issues with MSOP, the program can survive if the commissioner of human services performs her independent statutory responsibilities.”

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson in an oped to the StarTribune.