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Federal judges: MN sex offender program constitutional

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Pexton Hall on the treatment center campus.
A view of Pexton Hall on the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center campus last year. The building houses offenders in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News 2016

Updated: 6 p.m. | Posted: 9:45 a.m.

A U.S. Court of Appeals panel has reversed a lower court ruling and affirmed the constitutionality of Minnesota's sex offender confinement program, putting the matter back in the hands of a lower court and easing pressure on lawmakers to make major changes.

Tuesday's ruling overturned an order by federal Judge Donovan Frank that threatened to upend the program, which confines some sex offenders considered dangerous even after they've completed their prison terms. 

Minnesota is one of about 20 states where sex offenders can be confined through a civil court order either instead of prison or after an offender's prison sentence is up. It came under scrutiny because offenders had little chance of leaving the secured facilities once committed.

More than 700 civilly committed sex offenders had sued the state claiming it was unconstitutional to keep them locked up indefinitely and that they don't get adequate treatment from the program run by the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

Most were court-ordered to receive sex offender treatment after they finished their prison sentences, a process called civil commitment. Offenders are confined at treatment facilities in Moose Lake, Minn., and St. Peter, Minn.

Frank ripped the program in his June 2015 ruling, saying the "stark reality is that there is something very wrong with this state's method of dealing with sex offenders." 

However, in their 23-page opinion on Tuesday, the three appeals judges said that Frank applied the wrong standard in determining the program was invalid and overturned his mandate that changes be made. 

"We conclude this extensive process and the protections to persons committed under the MCTA (Minnesota Civil Commitment and Treatment Act) are rationally related to the state's legitimate interest of protecting its citizens from sexually dangerous persons or persons who have a sexual psychopathic personality," the judges wrote.

"Those protections," they added, "allow committed individuals to petition for a reduction in custody, including release."

Gov. Mark Dayton welcomed the ruling. He had insisted that further incarceration of some offenders was constitutionally sound and necessary.

  "The Minnesota system now is constitutional and that means we continue to make the reforms that we have started at our pace and at an affordable cost to our state budget, rather than have it done under a federal directive," the governor said Tuesday.

He said he was still reviewing the appeals court ruling but added that the lack of court pressure makes it harder to make changes.

The plaintiff's attorney Dan Gustafson said he's disappointed in the ruling and that protections for sex offenders laid out in state law don't work.

  "It's very easy to get in. It's impossible to get out," he said. "And that's the problem with the with the program. They've set it up in such a way that while it looks good on paper, in reality it doesn't work."

Mitchell Hamline School of Law professor Eric Janus,a long-time critic of the program, said a previous court case showed that the state lacks a solid way to assess the risk of someone re-offending in the future. 

  "Only people who pose a high risk should be committed, Janus said. "As it is, it is a program that has not lived up to its promise for 25 years."

Janus says the appeals court set a low bar for determining what's constitutional when determining if someone should be locked up for a crime they might commit.  

"Can you imagine our Constitution saying you can lock people up as long as it's not malicious and sadistic?" Janus said. "I'm surprised and disappointed in that standard."

But Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper said the program is an important tool to protect public safety and deliver court-ordered treatment to sex offenders.

About 100 offenders put in the program have been provisionally released or transferred to less restrictive accommodations, Piper said.

Piper said she has opposed the release of some offenders from the program but not all. 

"My primary focus is protecting public safety for all the people in Minnesota who rely on this program," she said. "But the courts have made decisions, sometimes over my objections, to provisionally discharge or transfer sex offenders or in case full discharge one sex offender out of our program."

Piper said the Legislature should provide more funding for the program. Needs include transitional housing and staff to provide oversight and evaluations, she said. Those were among the recommendations of a task force that concluded the system captures too many people and keeps many of them too long. 

MPR News reporter Tim Pugmire contributed to this report