St. Peter bonding tour

Elizabeth Barbo, re-integration director at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, guides a Minnesota Senate tour group through sex offender transitional housing in November 2015. 

State officials are asking the Minnesota Legislature for $17.8 million to renovate Minnesota Sex Offender Program buildings inside the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services has requested funding for the renovation for several years and now say the need for renovation is crucial.

Deputy DHS Commissioner Chuck Johnson told lawmakers at a House Capital Investment Committee hearing Tuesday that 88 of the 749 individuals within the sex offender program are in the process of transitioning outside of the program and within the community.

Another 47 individuals are waiting to enter so-called community preparation services but can’t because of a shortage of beds outside the secure part of MSOP facilities in St. Peter.

“As a result, we have gotten several legal challenges,” Johnson told lawmakers. He also said the agency has received a contempt of court complaint due to the backlog of people who need to start transitioning into community services per court order.

This year’s request would allocate $10.35 million toward renovating the program’s Sunrise building to add 30 beds and expand an existing medical clinic to serve the entire program. Another $7.45 million would be used to renovate the Tomlinson building, a facility just outside the program’s secure perimeter, for more recreational and program space. That renovation would install a chapel, library, staff and class space for offenders.

The renovation project has been mired in political controversy for several years as Republican lawmakers have opposed the request. DHS officials say the program operates at the whims of the state’s court system, which is why getting more beds for individuals ordered by the court to begin transitioning into communities is important.

Johnson noted Tuesday that 32 individuals are provisionally discharged into communities around the state with supervision. In the program’s history, the courts have fully released only 13 individuals from MSOP supervision.

No lawmaker has sponsored a bill for the MSOP request thus far in 2021, but Rep. Susan Akland, R-St. Peter, said she supports the proposed renovation and is willing to carry the bill in the House.

Akland noted the state could face future legal penalties if DHS officials can’t find more beds and space for individuals in its transitional program.

“We need to have the facilities to accommodate them,” she said.

The project came about after a 2015 ruling that said the MSOP was unconstitutionally keeping sex offenders with no hope for release. An appeals court later overturned that ruling, but advocates have pushed for state officials to improve its transition programming.

Lawmakers allotted $1.8 million toward the program last year out of a requested $18.3 million, which Johnson said will be used along with $2.5 million in previous state funding to add 20 more beds to the MSOP’s Green Acres building in St. Peter. That won’t cover the backlog, however.

“Some individuals could wait as long as two years to get from the secure facility into CPS even though they have the right to be there now,” Johnson said. “Not only does this create legal risk, it’s also unfair to those individuals who have worked hard at the treatment and are ready to move into CPS, but we don’t have that space for them.”

It’s unclear whether the project will be included in a public works bill this year. Gov. Tim Walz included the St. Peter MSOP renovation in a revised $550 million supplemental infrastructure proposal, but it remains to be seen whether lawmakers have an appetite for public works.

Minnesota pays for public infrastructure through borrowing, which is why infrastructure bills are also referred to as bonding bills. Lawmakers typically pass large-scale bonding bills in even-numbered years, while they pass smaller bonding bills in odd-numbered years.

Yet the Legislature also has a $1.6 billion state budget surplus. In addition, Minnesota is set to receive about $7.9 billion in federal COVID aid. About $4.7 billion is designated for state and municipal recovery as well as $179 million geared toward capital projects. Some of that recovery funding is set to go toward water, sewer or broadband infrastructure, which could free up state dollars for projects such as the MSOP renovation.

If the state decides to use a large chunk of that federal funding for infrastructure, Akland said she thinks the MSOP project could have “a pretty good chance” of being included in a state bonding bill.

“It’s necessary,” she said.

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