Gov. Mark Dayton has changed course on how to deal with sex offenders indefinitely detained under civil commitment.
Dayton today directed the state Department of Human Services to oppose any future recommendations that sex offenders be released. He said partisan politics are interfering with efforts to resolve legitimate constitutional concerns about the sex offender program, and that state lawmakers need to come up with a solution.
In recent weeks, the Dayton administration has drawn sharp criticism from some Republicans for supporting the release of some sex offenders and creating a plan to house them in a less restrictive facility in Cambridge, Minn.
State officials have signed a contract with a nonprofit agency to house and treat the state's most dangerous sex offenders if they are released. That represents a big shift for Minnesota, which for decades has indefinitely detained people committed for the worst sex crimes.
State Human Services commissioner Lucinda Jesson has supported recommendations by a Department of Human Services review board that three offenders be released. They include Thomas Duvall, who was convicted of criminal sexual conduct.
Many of the nearly 700 people in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program have joined a class-action lawsuit against the state that claims the program is unconstitutional. The program aims to provide treatment for offenders who have been detained after they complete their prison sentences because a civil proceeding has found them to still be a danger to the community.
The Dayton administration sought to address constitutional concerns by recommending the provisional release of some offenders and relocating them to Cambridge.
The recommended release of Duvall drew sharp criticism from Republican former House Speaker Kurt Zellers who hopes to run against Dayton next year.
Dayton did not mention Zellers but cited partisan opposition and scare tactics as the reason for bringing a halt to sex offender releases.
"The political partisanship made it clear that this was going to be an issue that will be seized upon and abused by some who don't mind scaring the people of Minnesota for their own advantage," the governor said. "And we just can't proceed in that environment."
Dayton is asking the Legislature to take another run at changing the way the state convicts sex offenders and incarcerates them. Meanwhile, he will oppose any more releases and halt the Cambridge plan.
A task force formed to study the issue will release a report on Dec. 1.
Last year, a federal judge ordered the state to change its policy of indefinitely incarcerating some sex offenders.
Dayton told reporters he still backs Jesson's decision to support the release of three offenders.
Jesson said halting future recommendations for provisional releases was the right thing for the governor to do.
"I think given the political outcry and the concerns over the law, it is very appropriate that we ask the Legislature once again [to] look at this law, take the steps that are necessary," she said. "And I look forward to working on a bipartisan basis with the governor and the Legislature to hopefully do just that."
In the last Legislative session, the state Senate agreed on a bipartisan plan to overhaul the sex offender program. The House did not. Dayton said Minnesotans want the Legislature to craft a thoughtful, reasoned approach.
"Can the Legislature function responsibly on behalf of public safety? I've seen it happen, and the Senate did it last time," he said. "Can it happen in an election year? It's more difficult, but that's the mandate and I think citizens will appropriately judge legislators and me on how responsibly we face up to this rather than doing what's described."
State Sen. Kathy Sheran, chair of the Senate Health, Human Services and Housing Committee, said there's no reason the entire Legislature cannot address the state's sex offender program to clear up concerns about its constitutionality.
"I believe it's possible to do that," said Sheran, DFL-Mankato. "And the changes in the law that make it possible for us to demonstrate to the court that we are actually using the civil commitment process as a therapeutic model a not an extension of incarceration, it's up to the Legislature to write language and to allow for that to happen."
State Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, said he thinks House Republicans will be open to another discussion about revamping Minnesota's civil commitment program. But Zerwas said if Democrats want a solution Dayton will need to come with many more specifics this time around.
"I think any move in the future to re-explore a community setting or a less restrictive alternative setting has to do a much better job laying out what the program entails and how security is handled," Zerwas said.
However, Zerwas said he's convinced the current law is constitutional and that the administration should be concentrating on defending the law rather than looking for ways to release civilly committed sex offenders.
Zerwas also said Dayton should oppose the release of the offenders recommended for release by the Human Services Department.