The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

March 15, 2014

As sex offender program marches on, rising costs

ST. PAUL — Minnesota lawmakers are getting nowhere over how to resolve constitutional questions about the state's sex offender treatment program, but the same can't be said about the program's costs.

They're going somewhere — up.

About 50 new patients enter the program every year, a growth rate that threatens to swamp existing facilities in the next few years. A Senate committee on Thursday will review a request for $7.4 million this year to renovate and expand the St. Peter treatment center; another $30 million or more is on the drawing board for future growth there and in Moose Lake.

Lawmakers are under pressure to comply with a federal judge's warning last month to create a more humane program or risk the judge ruling it unconstitutional and putting it under control of the courts. But despite that and the looming costs, top lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton last week said they doubted it would happen this session.

Lawmakers acknowledged on Friday they haven't met about the issue in about a month.

"The option of doing nothing would not be responsible from either a legal or fiscal perspective," said Eric Janus, dean of the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. He was a member of a task force that evaluated Minnesota's system and issued a report in December.

Minnesota has the highest number of civilly committed sex offenders per capita among 20 states with such programs. Each sex offender lives in a high-security environment, where state authorities referred them after they completed their prison sentences. Officials have released only two patients during the program's two-decade existence.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers have pointed out that extra space is needed for incoming patients. The program houses about 700 and has a total of 828 beds in St. Peter and Moose Lake, according to Human Services data. Department officials project a population of 928 by 2018, when plans call for a total of 1,041 beds.

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