Lawyers seek man's release from sex offender program

A federal judge said Tuesday that he is fast-tracking a class action lawsuit against the state of Minnesota brought by people held in the state's sex offender program.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank and Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Keyes wrapped up a two-day evidentiary hearing in St. Paul on Tuesday. Donovan, who has been highly critical of the program in other rulings, said he was moving a trial challenging the program to this fall, up from summer of 2015.

Donovan also plans to rule within 30 days on the constitutionality of holding in the state's Moose Lake Correctional Facility a 24-year-old who committed a pair of sex assaults when he was 10 and 14. He was sent to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program at 19.

The state concedes that experts found the man, known by his initials E.T., wasn't at great risk to reoffend. But state officials told the judge Tuesday that they want to put him through their conventional release program -- a gradual process that could take years.

"Community Preparation Services is designed to provide skills and slowly reintegrate our clients into the community," said Nancy Johnston, executive director of the MSOP.

But the man's attorney, Dan Gustafson, said holding offenders indefinitely, without individual scrutiny and regular evaluations, simply wasn't legal.

"The fact that it might be good for someone to go to a halfway house and get a job and learn to drive a car, and all those things are true. But the Constitution doesn't allow that kind of containment," Gustafson said after Tuesday's hearing. "Under the Constitution, the state can't take control of those people and force them to do that."

That case, along with the treatment of the state's only female sex offender, Rhonda Bailey, are considered "bellwether cases" in a class-action lawsuit challenging the state's practice of sending dangerous sex offenders to a locked treatment program after they serve prison time for their crimes.

Critics say the state is effectively imprisoning people without trial or other due process, and that the program doesn't constitute treatment if hardly anyone ever gets better enough to be released.

Deputy Attorney General Nathan Brennaman told the court that the state is trying to improve the situation of E.T. and Bailey. But he said the two aren't representative of larger problems with the program.

Brennaman also said that the program can help offenders, particularly those who have been institutionalized for many years. "Her current placement is the best placement for her," Brennaman told the judge of Bailey's confinement.

Frank has questioned the constitutionality of the program before, calling it "clearly broken" in a ruling in February and suggested that legislators act to reform the program. He also ordered a four-person team to examine select files of people held in the program. Those experts were on the stand in St. Paul this week, and their reports said Bailey and E.T. represented particularly worrisome instances of suspect confinement in the program.

State officials revealed today that they'd moved to expedite the transition of the 24-year-old into a release program, but opposed an "unconditional release," suggested by the court-appointed experts.

Nearly 700 offenders are held in the program, mostly in Moose Lake. Bailey lives in a sex offender unit at St. Peter with 22 men. About two dozen have successfully sought to be placed in the first stage of release, and just one has been released into the community since the program started in 1995.

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