The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 24, 2013

Senate hears Regional Treatment Center plea

By Dan Linehan
Free Press Staff Writer

ST. PAUL — In the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center, sex offenders and the mentally ill share the lower campus, below the bluff and just north of Highway 169.

“We don’t think that’s an appropriate place to be for the long term,” Chuck Johnson, chief financial officer of the state’s Department of Human Services, told the Senate bonding committee Wednesday.

Safety problems are worsened by the buildings’ older style of construction, including narrow hallways and the lack of sight-lines to common areas.

“For patients to feel comfortable, they need to know who’s around the next corner,” Johnson said.

The sex offender program is also growing at about 50 people a year and without new beds it will run out of room in about two years.

Human services officials gave their pitch Wednesday for $51.15 million in bonding funds, which they say will help solve those three problems — the mixing of the mentally ill and sex offenders, unsafe building design and an upcoming bed shortage.

Most of the senators seemed to support the request, but there were questions about spending so much money during a court-ordered review of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program.

Sen. James Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, said most of the human services officials talked about waiting for reports and discussing reforms.

“It seems to me that you’re putting the horse before the cart,” he said. He worried about the committee spending money while the facility’s future is debated.

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, agreed, asking state corrections and public safety officials to testify before major decisions about the Minnesota Sex Offender Program are made.

He said the program costs $300 per person each day, compared with $100 daily for prisoners, and said it “has to rank up there with one of the most unsuccessful programs we’ve ever dreamed up.”

“We are not having a great deal of luck in treating these folks,” he said.

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, emphasized the difference between the two different groups of people who are committed by the courts to the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center.

The mentally ill and dangerous live in the Minnesota Security Hospital, and stay for an average of eight years.

Sex offenders are part of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, from which only one person has been released. Ten people are now in the final stages of treatment.

Johnson called it “kind of a cross between a prison and a treatment center.”

Minnesota commits more sex offenders, per capita, than any other state in the country.

About 92 percent of the bonding request is aimed toward the mentally ill and dangerous, with the rest for the sex offenders. Among other improvements for the mentally ill residents, the changes would add new “crisis units” so people in the worst condition won’t affect everyone else.

The smaller portion of the bonding request (about 8 percent) for the Minnesota Sex Offender Program would be used to design four building renovations as well as remodel a building to add 30 beds.

In later years, 2014 and 2016, the human services department will ask the Legislature for a total of $28 million for more construction at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. In total, over the next six years, the department will ask for $130.9 million for construction improvements at the Regional Treatment Center. This doesn’t include operations; one official said the Security Hospital costs about $100 million to operate annually.

Eventually, the state’s plan is for the sex offenders to live on the lower campus (below the bluff) and the mentally ill and dangerous to live on the upper campus.

The committee discussed the request for about 90 minutes and didn’t vote because it was only an informational hearing. The committee’s chair, Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, will decide which of the 230 or so bonding proposals he’ll support.

And whether this project will make it into a final bonding bill is still unclear. The House and Gov. Mark Dayton have included the project in their proposals, but Republicans don’t want a bonding bill and Democrats need a handful of their votes to pass one. Bonding bills require a 60 percent majority.