Sex offender treatment overhaul wins key lawmaker's support

Moose Lake Correctional Facility
This facility in Moose Lake, Minn., houses the state's sex offender treatment program.
Photo Courtesy of the Department of Human Services

As Minnesota prepares to overhaul its system for treating sex offenders, at least one key lawmaker supports newly recommended reforms.

A task force this week suggested creating less restrictive treatment facilities across the state than the two high-security facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter, which are the only options.

But in doing so, policymakers would need to strike a balance between respecting the constitutional rights of sex offenders while keeping the public safe.

A court-ordered task force has recommended that the state develop new programs to treat sex offenders. Its work was set in motion by a federal class-action lawsuit brought by offenders who claim that they are being held in violation of their constitutional rights and that they have not received adequate treatment.

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Under the task force's recommendations, the Legislature could create group homes, outpatient centers, and treatment programs throughout the state.

One legislator applauding the ideas is state Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato. When the Legislature convenes next year, she'll serve as chairman of the Senate Health, Human Services, and Housing Policy Committee.

Lawmakers recognize that Minnesota must overhaul an increasingly costly system, Sheran said. But she said the catch is convincing the public that change is necessary.

"People like the idea until it's in their own backyard."

Sheran said taxpayers don't want to see their money spent disproportionately on sex offenders.

Every year, the state spends about $120,000 on each patient in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. That's nearly four-times the cost of housing a prisoner in prison. The program's total annual budget is $73 million.

A key issue of any new system, Sheran said, will be where to treat the offenders.

"When you get to the point where, 'We'll use this alternative, which will be distributed throughout the state, and there may be a less restrictive treatment facility — in your town, located on this block, in this neighborhood — that's where you start to have some pushback," Sheran said. "People like the idea until it's in their own backyard."

State Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, agrees it will be tough to win public acceptance. He said the suggestion to build treatment centers throughout the state for people who have committed sex crimes probably won't succeed.

"I don't think they're going to get public buy-in, or legislative buy-in, for the ideas that this task force is coming up with," Cornish said. "I think it's going to be a really hard sell at the Legislature."

It will cost additional money to build a statewide network of new facilities. But state officials hope the new options will prove less expensive than running the existing ones.

"We know Minnesota may be committing some sex offenders who could be treated in less costly settings, in less secure settings," said Lucinda Jesson, state commissioner of human services.

Jesson echoes concerns from a legislative auditor's report last year that found Minnesota's commitment process produces an all-or-nothing outcome. She said when a judge is deciding whether to commit a sex offender, they essentially face a tough decision.

"They can civilly commit that individual to a sex offender treatment program, which is highly secure and costly," Jesson said. "Or they cannot commit that individual at all."

In other words, judges may indefinitely send offenders to facilities for treatment without permission to leave, or release them.

Under the program, civilly committed sex offenders have carried out their prison sentences, but are required to receive treatment because judges found them to be too dangerous to return to the community.

Since the program was created in 1994, one person was has been released — years ago — but his provisional discharge was later revoked. Earlier this year, another was provisionally released to a halfway house.

The federal lawsuit prompted Chief U.S. Magistrate Arthur Boylan to order the state to convene the task force, which will also consider how sex offenders are referred to the program and how they can receive reduced custody time.

Meanwhile, the number of patients is growing. Today, state officials are housing about 670 offenders at the two facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter, compared to 181 offenders a decade ago.

The task force did not spell out how the state should develop the programs, or how much it should spend. Jesson said she will spend the next few weeks meeting with lawmakers to determine how to move forward.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how much the state spends on each patient in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. The current version is correct.