U.S. Supreme Court lets Minnesota sex offender program stand

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

Updated 1:50 p.m. | Posted 8:56 a.m.

The United States Supreme Court on Monday left intact Minnesota's program for confining sex offenders deemed a continuing risk to the public, ending a legal battle that had put the system under a constitutional cloud for years.

By denying a hearing, justices effectively let a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling from January stand.

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The result is significantly reduced pressure on political leaders to remake the Minnesota Sex Offender Program that now has more than 700 people, mostly men, indefinitely held under civil court order.

Those commitments to secure facilities in Moose Lake, Minn., and St. Peter, Minn., have come after or instead of prison time, but the tough path to release has left most offenders with no hope of eventual freedom.

Dan Gustafson, the lead attorney for confined offenders, said he was troubled by the high court's decision.

"The federal courts have essentially taken this hands off approach to a group of people who is despised by the public and easy for the political leadership in Minnesota to ignore," he said, predicting there would be few substantive changes going forward.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services-administered program involves treatment aimed at reducing or otherwise controlling sexual impulses.

The program was established by lawmakers in 1994 to keep a convicted rapist from going free after fulfilling a long prison term. The headcount and costs soared but program administrators showed little inclination to let any offenders walk free.

That structure of Minnesota's program — one of about 20 like it around the country — has left it under legal challenge by a group of offenders for almost six years.

A federal district judge in 2015 found Minnesota's system to be unconstitutional and ordered the state to make sweeping changes or risk closure. Gov. Mark Dayton recommended some possible changes, but those went nowhere as the decision worked its way up the judicial ladder.

On appeal, the ruling was reversed and any move to dramatically alter the program stalled.

Some offenders have gradually been moved into less-restrictive settings, with some staged for provisional release. Offenders who have reached that stage have often met resistance from state officials amid political outcry about possible dangers to the public.

While there is new legal certainty about the program, it won't end the debate over it, said Department of Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper, whose agency administers the program.

Piper said her agency is still working to abide by state court decisions that could set individual offenders free after treatment.

There are currently eight offenders under supervision living in community settings. Seven more are being staged for placement. But the Legislature has largely ignored requests to pay for less-restrictive housing than secure facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter. Piper said many communities are putting up roadblocks, too.

"I don't make the decision and the governor doesn't make the decision about who comes into this program and who leaves this program. Those decisions are made by the courts of this state," she said. "I can only speak to our plans to continue to move the program forward in a way that we know is best practices and in conformity with the law."

Dayton said he will make a new bid for funding next year.

"Importantly, this ruling does not mean that we abandon our ongoing reforms, to prioritize the safety and well-being of all Minnesotans," he said in a statement. "Rather, this ruling will allow us to continue the reforms we have begun, rather than operate under a federal directive."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this report said six offenders are being staged for placement outside the program. This version updates that to seven based on new information from the Minnesota Department of Human Services.