The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

October 24, 2013

Minnesota task force looks at sex offender program

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A state task force is considering major changes to Minnesota's system for indefinitely confining its most dangerous sex offenders.

The 15-member panel is discussing the creation of a central state court that would be able to determine how sex offenders are selected for civil commitment and when they could be released. The draft recommendations reviewed Wednesday also would ask the Legislature to adopt a higher standard of proof and create a panel of professional experts to screen commitments, the Star Tribune reported (http://bit.ly/1a9EJLu ).

"This (panel) is much more robust than what we have now," said Eric Magnuson, a task force co-chairman and former chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. The task force is expected to deliver its recommendations by Dec. 1.

Minnesota has the highest number of civilly committed offenders per capita among the 20 states with such programs. A class-action lawsuit has been filed by a group of offenders who say the practice amounts to lifetime confinement without appropriate treatment.

Civil commitments to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program have soared since 2003, when the state's rules changed after Dru Sjodin, a college student, was kidnapped and killed by a convicted sex offender. The treatment program houses nearly 700 offenders at high-security facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter.

Proponents of the proposed reforms say they would make the commitment process less susceptible to political pressure by giving more authority to state-appointed experts instead of local elected officials. County judges and prosecutors sometimes fear the political fallout of releasing convicted rapists and child molesters, even if they have already completed their prison sentences and their risk of reoffending is low.

Recently, an offender won a provisional discharge from the program and is currently living under close supervision. But since the program was created in 1994, no offender has ever been permanently released.

"It's not an exaggeration to say the (program) is a de-facto life sentence," said Eric Janus, president and dean of the William Mitchell College of Law and a member of the task force. "What we're saying is, before we spend a huge amount of money to lock people up, we better be really sure that these people need this super level of protection."

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