Sex Offender Program continues to grow, as state faces court order to change

Moose Lake Correctional Facility
This facility in Moose Lake, Minn., houses the state's sex offender treatment program. Minnesota keeps more than 675 people behind bars even though they've served their time because of the possibility they will commit another sex offense. That raises questions over constitutional rights that led to the appointment of two committees charged with recommending reforms to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program.
Photo Courtesy of the Department of Human Services

The people held at the Minnesota's facility for sex offenders in Moose Lake live on a 29-acre "campus" surrounded by two barbed-wire-topped fences.

Under constant supervision, most of the offenders agreed late last year to start wearing location tracking devices around their ankles.

"It gives at least some amount of freedom to move about in the facility without having to be constantly escorted by staff," said Anne Barry, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Human Services, which oversees the 18-year-old Minnesota Sex Offender Program.

Barry said the $1.2 million dollar tracking bracelet system was designed to maintain a therapeutic environment for an expanding population. Every year, the program makes room for about 50 new offenders committed by county courts. Until last year, it released none of them.

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Civil liberties advocates and others have long criticized Minnesota for indefinitely holding in secure facilities sex offenders who have served their time in prison, but whom county prosecutors and judges think may commit crimes again. Last year state officials acknowledged the Minnesota Sex Offender Program needs to find a way to release offenders once they have been rehabilitated. They formed a task force that has held hearings to determine how to change the program.

But a DHS report to the legislature shows that local officials continue to funnel sex offenders into the program, prompting the state to spend millions to expand the facilities needed to house them.

Read the report

After offenders in the program filed a class action lawsuit, a federal judge in August ordered the state of Minnesota to show the treatment it was providing could lead to rehabilitation and release.

Meanwhile, according to a new legislative report, county prosecutors and judges committed 41 people to the sex offender program in 2012. Most of the 678 offenders inside opted to participate in treatment, but the clinical professionals assigned to help them kept leaving. When independent consultants hired by the state visited Moose Lake, they found that 18 of 65 clinical positions were vacant. Just one offender graduated to the last phase of treatment, where 10 people are now preparing for release.

"I think there are people who could advance an argument that if you had greater continuity, more staff, that we might be able to move people even quicker through phases of treatment," Barry acknowledged.

But she said it's very difficult for offenders to produce the character changes necessary to prove they're no longer a risk to the public, and that also could be slowing their progress through treatment.

The department is making an effort to retain personnel, but Barry said there is one big factor they can't change: the job is in Moose Lake, which she said is why many employees leave.

Eric Janus, dean of the William Mitchell College of Law, said state officials must find a way to move sex offenders through treatment and out of the facility if they want to satisfy the federal courts.

Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson named Janus to a task force to recommend ways to commit fewer offenders, release more people, and set up cheaper secure community options for those released.

"There's certainly been some changes, but when you look at the fundamentals, it's kind of business as usual," Janus said.

And the usual business is to plan for growth. The department recently completed a $47.5 million dollar expansion at Moose Lake. A $7 million dollar expansion at the program's other facility in St Peter is scheduled to be completed next year. Gov. Mark Dayton has asked the legislature for another $7.8 million for renovations. But the governor has warned that if the Minnesota Sex Offender Program doesn't change, it could be forcibly changed by the courts.

If things are to change for the Minnesota Sex Offender Program this year, legislation to overhaul it must be introduced within the few weeks, said state Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato.

Sheran, chair of the Senate Health, Human Services, and Housing Policy Committee, said the Senate has an unofficial March 15 deadline for substantial policy changes. She wants to make the deadline, but is waiting to receive the task force's recommendations.

"The court is asking for us to show progress," she said. "The legislature needs to be responsive to that. It can't just ignore that."