Panel calls for overhaul of Minn. sex offender law

In what would be a significant departure from the current Minnesota Sex Offender Program, judges may have the option of sending sex offenders who have completed their sentences to less restrictive treatment programs instead of to prison-like treatment facilities where most are detained indefinitely.

A 15-member task force on the Minnesota Sex Offender Program has recommended that the Legislature substantially change the program to reduce the number of people detained indefinitely under civil commitment. But a key legislator who serves on the panel said the next political season might make that difficult.

Nearly 700 people who have already served prison sentences for sex crimes are confined indefinitely at state facilities in Moose Lake, Minn., and St. Peter, Minn., because courts have deemed them too dangerous to release. Although technically not prisons, the compounds are ringed with barbed wire.

Referred to as "clients" by state officials, the detainees are not free to leave. That prompted them to challenge the program in federal court, where a judge ordered the state Department of Human Services to form a task force to address constitutional concerns.

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Former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, who heads the task force, said one of its primary recommendations is for a special court of retired judges to oversee civil commitments.

"We thought it would be best to echo the recommendation of the prior groups that studied this and say let's have a truly independent court, one that is not subject to either local or statewide political pressure," Magnuson said.

The task force also recommends establishing a screening unit independent of the state departments of Human Services and Corrections to evaluate sex offenders who might meet the criteria for commitment every two years. Any decision by such a group would not be legally binding, but it would be admissible at civil commitment hearings.

Local prosecutors would still have the authority to petition for commitment, but the burden of proof at all stages of the process would shift to the state.

Magnuson said judges also should have options for the kind of commitment to impose, such as treatment programs that are less restrictive than the prison-like settings the state uses now.

"I know that some think we're making it harder to commit people and easier for them to get out," Magnuson said. "But actually one of our considerations here was that if a judge knew that he or she had the option of ameliorating the harshness of a commitment decision by a placement in a less restrictive environment, they might actually be more inclined to commit."

The report also recommends that no one be committed to the sex offender program based solely on a juvenile record. According to the Department of Human Services, 52 people in the program now do not have adult convictions.

Attorney Dan Gustafson, who filed the class action suit challenging the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, compares the current system to the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Gustafson said the recommendations in the report are a proper response.

"And that is to take the political temperature down, take the politics out of the decision making process, make it a process that is uniform for all based on more objective criteria and less subjective decision making," he said. "That is consistent throughout the entire report."

As the task force could only make recommendations, Gustafson said the lawsuit will proceed until the Legislature makes the necessary changes.

State Sen. Warren Limmer, a member of the task force, said he agrees with its recommendations. But he said it could be tough to pass legislation in the House and Senate in 2014, an election year.

"The House is up," said Limmer, R-Maple Grove. "Majority party control may be in the balance and it'll be interesting to determine if the DFL leaders in both chambers and the governor want to advance this issue in light of a federal court case."

A year ago, after a previous round of suggestions from the task force, the Minnesota Senate approved some changes, but the House declined to take up the bill.

Whether the Legislature chooses to act or not, Limmer said, the constitutional issues surrounding the Minnesota Sex Offender program won't disappear any time soon.

A federal judge will begin hearing arguments in the class action suit against the state on Dec. 18.