By Dan Nienaber
Free Press Staff Writer
ST PETER — A recommendation from a recently formed sex offender task force should force legislators to start doing some serious work with the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, according to a lawmaker from one of two cities where offenders are now treated in costly facilities.
It was the first of several sets of recommendations the Sex Offender Civil Commitment Advisory Task Force has been ordered to address. It focused on finding less restrictive alternatives for the state’s committed sex offenders, who are now treated in prison-like buildings in St. Peter and Moose Lake and have little chance of ever being released.
More than 600 offenders are in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program at an annual cost of about $120,000 each. Most have served prison sentences and were sent to St. Peter and Moose Lake by court commitment after release from prison. They remain confined, surrounded by walls and razor-wire fences, while they are treated.
Rep. Terry Morrow, DFL-St.Peter, said finding alternative treatment facilities won’t be easy. The task force doesn’t only want them to be less restrictive but also in several locations so they are available in every region of the state.
Morrow said legislators will have the difficult task of balancing public safety with the rights of sex offenders who have served their time in prison. Finding funding won’t be easy, either, he said.
The way sex offenders are now treated in Minnesota is not the norm, Morrow said. Most states have a variety of options, including Texas where a combination of halfway houses, low-security facilities and high-security facilities are used. Federal lawsuits filed by inmates in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program prompted the federal court order to create a task force and improve the situation.
Lawmakers have discussed providing sex offender treatment in regional and residential settings in the past, Morrow said. The discussions didn’t get very far.
“I think the first question is whether the Legislature is going to have that serious discussion about the program and its sustainability, its stability and its legality,” he said.
“There are understandable concerns on the part of the public and those concerns have to remain at the front of legislators’ minds. But at the same time we have the obligation to solve significant problems, and the Minnesota Sex Offender Program has significant problems.
“We’re hired to tackle tough problems and we need to tackle them.”
The task force is headed by former Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson. In a letter he sent to Lucinda Jesson, Department of Human Services commissioner, he said the task force had to work quickly to meet the Monday deadline set by the federal court order.
The recommendations said the Legislature has to make the less restrictive facilities available within a “reasonable period of time.” Legislators need to change any laws that would be an obstacle to the alternatives and make the new facilities accessible as options to prison officials, state social workers, prosecutors, judges and the people being committed.
Public safety should be a priority, but lawmakers also need to educate the public about the rehabilitation aspects of the program and what has been done to keep the public safe, according to the recommendations.
The task force also said Jesson should request facility proposals from both government and non-government entities. Those proposals need to describe the type of residential services that will be used, treatment services, how technology such as GPS devices will be used, and transitional services such as employment counseling and training for daily living skills.
Residential facilities won’t be required for proposed programs, but public safety would have to be addressed for any outpatient plans.
The federal court order also requires the task force to recommend changes to the civil commitment process and recommend ways the number of sex offenders in custody can be reduced. Magnuson’s letter said that will involve and in-depth analysis of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program during the next year.
A final report is due by Dec. 1, 2013.
“These are things that haven’t been addressed by the Legislature,” Morrow said. “The order and the task force report give us the opportunity to really address sex offender issues.”