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Judge promises 'more forceful solution' if lawmakers don't reform Minnesota Sex Offender Program

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank is getting used to issuing strongly worded orders.

In February 2014, he warned lawmakers that he thought the state’s sex offender treatment program was “draconian” and very likely violated the constitutional rights of its clients, who receive treatment but rarely get out of the razor-wire facility. In an order this June, he went one step further, declaring the program unconstitutional and ordering lawmakers into his courtroom to find a solution.  

Lawmakers met behind closed doors in Frank’s chambers Monday, but emerged with nothing settled and little agreement on how to fix the program. On Wednesday, Frank issued yet another sharp-tongued order, threatening a “more forceful solution” if state leaders fail to come up with their own reforms.

“Recognizing the history of the state’s failure to meet minimum constitutional requirements, as well as the continuing injury and harm resulting from these serious violations, the Court notes that, at some point, if the state proves unwilling or incapable of remedying the constitutional violations, to which insufficient funding is not a defense, that failure may demand a more forceful solution,” Frank wrote in the Aug. 12 order. “Any delay by the state to prepare for the inevitable relief to be imposed by the Court in light of the previously determined constitutional violations would only increase the risk to public safety.”

Frank has ordered lawmakers back to his courtroom on Sept. 30 to propose fixes to the program.

Minnesota civilly commits more than 700 offenders to the state’s sex offender treatment program, at prison-like campuses in Moose Lake and St. Peter. Most offenders there have completed their prison sentence but were deemed “sexually dangerous” upon release and sent indefinitely to the program for treatment. In the 20 years since the Minnesota Sex Offender Program opened it’s doors, only two people have successfully been released on a conditional basis, while one was ultimately sent back into confinement. 

One more offender, Benjamin Gissendanner, is readying for supervised release after a judicial panel ruled last month that he had progressed through treatment. After the meeting Monday, Gov. Mark Dayton proposed spending $7 million to do biennial risk reviews of offenders in the program, and another $10-15 million to build less-restrictive facilities for the elderly in the program and those suffering from cognitive disabilities.

But Frank has suggested more sweeping reforms to the program, including an immediate review of every offender in the program, starting with the elderly and those who have only juvenile offenses on their record.

“The state could create assessment teams and enter contracts to provide independent, periodic risk-assessments; develop transitional services; establish facilities to be used for less restrictive alternative options; and design a statewide public education plan on civil commitment, alternative facilities, provisional discharge conditions, and risk of re-offense data, as much of the information that is being stated publicly is either inaccurate, unfounded, or misleading," Frank wrote in the order. 

Dayton and the state attorney general plan to appeal Frank’s ruling on the program’s constitutionality later this year. In a statement Wednesday, Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt said he supports that plan of action.

"We agree with Attorney General Swanson that this program is constitutional and support her decision to appeal the judge's ruling. As we work through this process, our number one priority has been and will continue to be protecting the public."

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