A Minnesota state agency soon will have to say in court why it should continue to hold a sex offender who committed his crimes as a juvenile, a federal judge ordered this week.
A panel of experts says the man should be released immediately from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program.
When he was 19 years old, the man identified in court documents by the initials E.T. was indefinitely committed for sex offenses that occured between the ages of 10 and 14. The documents do not say when his commitment began, nor do they specify what his crimes were. The court documents say E.T. has no adult criminal history.
The Minnesota Department of Human Services holds the man in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. DHS says he is one of 65 patients in the program who have no adult convictions. There are currently 691 sex offenders in the program, according to the DHS website.
A federal court-appointed panel of experts unanimously recommended E.T. be released. They say there's little evidence he's dangerous or a risk to public safety.
"It's the first time that there's been some conclusive evidence that supports the allegations that people are being held unconstitutionally in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program," said attorney Dan Gustafson, who represents the people in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in a federal class action lawsuit. "I think this is a really important step and I don't think it's the last bit of evidence we're going to develop."
In February, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank ordered an independent panel of experts to evaluate everyone in the program. The panel started with the young adult, assisted living and alternative program units.
The majority of these offenders served prison time and were then civilly committed because they were deemed too dangerous to release. Some came straight from juvenile custody.
The patients claim the Minnesota Sex Offender Program offers little rehabilitation or chance of release from facilities at Moose Lake and St. Peter. And, they say, the indefinite detention violates their constitutional right to due process.
In the history of the program, no one has been unconditionally released, Gustafson said. One man was granted provisional release two years ago. And as the experts evaluate more patients, he expects more orders.
"I understand that they are going to issue these reports as they get them finished. This is the first one, but I'm certain there's more coming," Gustafson said.
The Department of Human Services says in a statement they'll be challenging the panel's finding that E.T. should be released. They'll also defend the constitutionality of his custody.
As they watch the controversy over the Minnesota Sex Offender Program play out in the courts, some lawmakers say the legislature passed up a chance to make changes.
"It's very unfortunate that those decisions are being made by a federal court instead of in a process set up by the Minnesota Legislature," Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, says the Legislature basically punted the issue during the last session. "That really shouldn't be happening. But we all knew that it was going to come to something like this if we didn't act and we were not able to act."
State Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove served on the panel that proposed changes in the program. He says E.T.'s case points to a weakness with the current program: "If he's been incarcerated first for a full sentence under the criminal justice system, and then immediately taken from there and brought to a civil commitment. If this person hasn't gotten out. If experts say that he's not a threat. One has to ask some serious questions of what kind of system do we have?"
A federal court hearing on the order is set for June 25 in St. Paul.