Protracted Minnesota Sex Offender Program suit comes to end

Pexton Hall on the treatment center campus.
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: 6:24 p.m. | Posted: 4:53 p.m.

A long-running class-action lawsuit over the constitutionally of Minnesota's civil commitment program for sex offenders effectively ended Thursday when a federal judge dismissed the remaining claims but stood by his earlier statements that some revelations during the six-week trial shock his conscience.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank cited a 2017 decision by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which overturned his 2015 declaration that the program was unconstitutional because few people had ever been released from the program since began in the mid-1990s. The U.S. Supreme Court last October declined to hear the case, letting the 8th Circuit's ruling stand and the program to continue operating as it was.

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The Minnesota Sex Offender Program currently confines over 720 sex offenders who have finished their prison sentences to secure treatment facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter. Lawyers who filed the class-action lawsuit in 2011 argued that commitment to the program was tantamount to a life sentence because hardly anyone up to that point had ever been released from it. However, the pace of provisional discharges has picked up since the trial ended.

"Some of the facts revealed during the lengthy Phase One trial in this matter are indeed shocking to this court's conscience," Frank wrote.

The judge said he considers the continued confinement of the only woman in the program "truly conscience-shocking." He called the continued confinement of elderly people with a low likelihood of reoffending "an egregious affront to liberty, particularly in light of the pervasive sense of hopelessness at the MSOP." He also expressed "great concern" with the confinement of individuals with cognitive disabilities. and those who committed sex offenses only while they were juveniles. He said they could be safely kept in less restrictive facilities.

The dismissed claims, which had been put on hold for a second phase of the case, dealt mostly with alleged violations of religious freedom, free speech and free association, and protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. The effect of the rulings is that anyone in the program who wishes to pursue such claims must do so as an individual instead of a class action. Frank noted that several such cases are pending, and more may now follow.

"The prospect of these many individual lawsuits going forward may be a compelling reason for all parties to sit down in an attempt to reach an agreement to settle any remaining issues in this case, with or without the assistance of the Court, instead of incurring the significant costs and delay associated with pursuing an appeal," he wrote. "To do so might well serve the best interests of the parties, the public interest, and the interests of justice."

The only remaining issue is whether the state or the plaintiffs should pay the costs of some court-appointed experts who studied the program. Frank said he would decide that later.

"The Court hopes that the public and all stakeholders will carefully consider the complex issues raised by this litigation, moving forward in a manner that balances the interests of public safety, fundamental justice, and basic human dignity. Justice requires no less," he concluded.