Lawsuit challenging Minnesota Sex Offender Program can proceed, judge rules

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

A federal judge in St. Paul says the hundreds of people committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program may continue with a lawsuit challenging their confinement.

In a 75-page ruling, Judge Donovan Frank stopped short of declaring the program unconstitutional. But the judge also said he will not hesitate to take "strong remedial action" if he finds the sex offenders have a valid case.

• Scroll down to read a copy of the judge's ruling

About 700 sex offenders are confined beyond their sentences in prison-like facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter. Most have served prison sentences, though a few came straight from juvenile custody. All are under civil commitment after courts deemed them too dangerous to release.

In 2011 the program's "clients" -- the state's term for people housed in the facilities -- sued the Minnesota Department of Human Services. The plaintiffs claim they're not getting the psychological treatment they're supposed to be receiving, and their commitment is a de-facto life sentence that violates their rights to due process.

Frank's ruling, handed down Thursday, does not mean sex offenders will be released any time soon. He denied requests for less restrictive treatment facilities. He also declined to remove the Minnesota Sex Offender Program from state control, saying that would be premature at this stage of the lawsuit. But Frank did order a court-appointed team of experts to evaluate everyone in the program for possible alternative placement and review the program's policies. The judge concluded his ruling by saying the program has systemic problems that state lawmakers need to fix.

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Lead plaintiff's attorney Dan Gustafson said he's happy with the decision. The ruling means he can move forward with collecting evidence to prove his case that the sex offender program is punitive rather than therapeutic. Gustafson said Frank was careful with his decision.

"I think that this is a complicated matter, and he wants to get some guidance from people who have expertise in this area," Gustafson said. "That the results that he's seeing, that no one ever gets out, are the result of an ill-designed or an ill-implemented program, as opposed to just that Minnesota has more dangerous people than other states."

Gustafson said Frank "is inviting the Legislature to address some of these problems ahead of him."

"He's made clear that if the record -- as developed by these experts and the discovery that we do -- supports the claims that we allege, which is that this program is being operated in a punitive not therapeutic manner, then he won't hesitate to act," Gustafson said.

"It's a matter of state sovereignty. I think that we need to take care of this program," said state Rep. Tina Liebling, D-Rochester. She chairs the Health and Human Services Policy Committee. Minnesota lawmakers start their 2014 session on Tuesday, and Liebling -- a Democrat -- says reform of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program needs to be a priority. She says if lawmakers fail to act, Judge Frank could put the program under federal oversight.

"That's not something Minnesotans should want, because they elect us to make these kinds of calls. The judge could do anything, up to the point of closing down the program if he found it unconstitutional. And he's signaling that he will do that if he thinks it's necessary," Liebling said.

Last year Liebling's bill to overhaul the sex offender program failed in the House. She says if there is to be another attempt at fixing the program, it needs to have bipartisan buy-in from the start, especially with this year's shortened session.

Liebling says any legislation would be based on recommendations from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program task force, which she was part of. Among other things, the group called for an independent team to evaluate each offender in future commitment cases. They also want a special court of retired judges to oversee the process.

State Rep. Tony Cornish, a Republican from Vernon Center, says giving predatory sex offenders long sentences -- a mandatory 60 years -- would be less expensive than post-prison treatment and civil commitment. But Cornish acknowledges that lawmakers need to do something to avert more drastic court action.

"I think the judge is about ready to take just about anything we can give him," Cornish said. "If we can show him that we're releasing three or even four a year -- with ankle bracelets, with high fences, with one on one monitoring -- intense supervision they call it -- and stop front loading it by sending everybody to the SOP instead of prison -- I think that would be a very favorable result and he'd back off."

Cornish, a former sheriff's deputy, says treatment for sex offenders is a laudable goal. But he says the state's first priority should be public safety.

Judge Frank ordered a court-appointed team of experts evaluate everyone in the program to see whether each of them poses a continuing danger to society, and to determine if they're eligible for discharge or placement in a less restrictive facility. The evaluators also will look at the treatment program offered by the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said her department will need to analyze the judge's order before responding.

"Our analysis will determine the resources that will be needed, both financial and other, to carry out the order and work with the experts chosen by the court," Jesson said in an emailed statement. "The ruling raises questions about the future of Minnesota's civil commitment system for sex offenders, and we urge the full Legislature, on a bipartisan basis, to address this issue in the coming weeks and months."

Read a copy of the judge's ruling below: