By Dan Linehan
Free Press Staff Writer
— The essential problem with the Minnesota Sex Offender Program is that it’s like a Venus fly trap — people get in, but they don’t get out, said Eric Magnuson, former chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.
“It is largely indefensible that no one goes through this system and is released. If not indefensible, a real serious problem,” he told a state Senate committee Tuesday.
Sen. Kathy Sheran has authored a bill to begin reforms to the program, which is based in St. Peter and Moose Lake. It was heard and unanimously approved by a human services finance committee Tuesday morning.
“We would like to see some cost savings, but mostly what my bill is about is being responsive to the requirements of the court,” said Sheran, D-Mankato.
In response to a complaint challenging the constitutionality of the program, a federal court in 2012 ordered the creation of a task force to provide reports to the Legislature about the sex offender program. The task force’s first report was released in December and Sheran’s bill is based on its recommendations.
And the court action is no idle threat, Magnuson said.
“This is not a frivolous lawsuit,” he said.
“The federal court has been very patient but it will not be patient much longer. And the last thing the state of Minnesota wants, I believe, is to let the federal government start running this program,” Magnuson said.
Sheran’s bill doesn’t entirely solve those constitutional problems, though she says it’s a start that shows the federal court that the Legislature is serious about reforms.
One of those problems is that Minnesota courts have an all-or-nothing choice when deciding to commit sex offenders; it’s commitment in a highly-secured facility or total freedom.
The bill directs the state to develop so-called “less-restrictive alternatives,” for which the state has already sought bids from governments and nonprofits. There is also a hope that these new treatment models will be more effective. As of March 31, there were 683 people in the sex offender program, but only one person has been released. About 10 people are now in the final stages of treatment.
The bill also calls for a review of every inmate’s commitment every two years. It’s a sort of automatic appeal that is supposed to determine whether or not the inmate has made enough progress for a change in their treatment plan.
Something similar would also happen at the beginning of the process, after a civil commitment has been made. At that point, a separate review would determine whether public safety requires that someone needs to live behind razor wire in St. Peter or whether another setting (a halfway house, perhaps) is appropriate.
The creation of less-restrictive alternatives may save money because of the sex offender program’s hefty $326-a-day price tag. Other parts of the bill, including the every-other-year reviews, will cost money. The state has estimated those costs at $1.4 million a year, though Sheran said there is enough money in the budget for new sex offenders to cover that cost.
Though legislators have avoided reforms of the sex offender program for years, Sheran said the pending court action has prevented her reforms from becoming political fodder.
“That’s not happening, and I think that’s a consequence of people understanding that, given the court’s ruling, (not acting) would be irresponsible,” Sheran said.
The Senate bill’s next stop is in the finance committee. Its House companion is bound for the judiciary committee. The bills have missed committee deadlines, so they will need special permission to advance.