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Pressure mounting on legislators to fix Minnesota sex offender program

A class action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the program will begin early next year, even while lawmakers try to find a legislative fix. 

A federal class action lawsuit argues MSOP is unconstitutional because it promises treatment for its more than 700 clients but rarely lets anyone out.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

A looming federal trial and an increase in patients being readied for release from Minnesota’s sex offender program has focused attention back to St. Paul, where lawmakers are again at odds over how to how to fix the state’s controversial program.

Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson says the number of offenders in the final phase of treatment before release at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) in Moose Lake and St. Peter has tripled in the last year. “That says a lot,” Jesson said. “We are seeing people make progress in treatment.”

Commissioner Lucinda Jesson
MinnPost photo by James Nord
Commissioner Lucinda Jesson

The department has more than a dozen contracts with various group homes, adult foster care centers and other facilities around the state to house offenders should a panel of judges choose to release any of them from their civil commitment to MSOP. Jesson recently withdrew her opposition to the release of the third person to be let out of the program in its 20-year history.

At the same time, MSOP remains at the center of a legal battle that contends that things at the facility haven’t moved quickly enough. A federal class action lawsuit argues MSOP is unconstitutional because it promises treatment for its more than 700 clients — most of whom have already served their prison sentences — but rarely lets anyone out. The case goes to trial in February, and an expert panel appointed by the court has already recommended the release of at least two more offenders from the program.

Those factors have increased pressure on lawmakers in St. Paul to try and find a legislative fix for the program. But a proposal to address constitutional concerns with MSOP stalled in the middle of a heated election season last year. The release of sex offenders into communities has always been politically dicey, and House Republicans and Democrats couldn’t reach an agreement that would attract bipartisan votes. 

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Heading into the 2015 session, the Republicans who control the state House and the Democrats who control the Senate are already divided on how to proceed with fixing the program. At the heart of the disagreement is when to act — before or after the federal court rules on the class action lawsuit.

Senate Democrats are pushing for a swift resolution. “I think many people see the court as the option to force an action on this without having to take responsibility for whatever the solution is,” said DFL Sen. Kathy Sheran, who has the St. Peter campus of the program in her district. “The Legislature is supposed to take on the role of protecting both civil rights and public safety. By doing it ourselves we can do it the most effectively and efficiently and we can have a say in how state money is spent on this.”

Rep. Nick Zerwas
Rep. Nick Zerwas

Sheran, working with Senate Republicans, passed a proposal in 2013 that adopted a series of recommendations from a special sex offender reform task force. Among other things, the bill proposed to put only the most dangerous offenders in the program, while others would be placed in a less restricted environment. It also established a two-step hearing process that would determine if commitment to the treatment program is needed and, if necessary, the terms of that commitment. The proposal also required more frequent review of individual cases.

This year, Sheran wants to add a provision from Senate Republicans that would alter sentencing guidelines for future sex offenders. The change would give sex offenders an indeterminate prison sentence, shifting some responsibility to treat sex offenders to the corrections department. 

House Republicans believe the program is constitutional, said Rep. Nick Zerwas, who took the lead on reforms for his caucus last session. He said recent release of a third offender into the community shows that MSOP “isn’t a life sentence.” “This isn’t a one-way ticket,” he said.

“I would be hesitant to start a large public policy discussion in February while the trial is going on,” Zerwas said. “Pulling stakeholders from all sides together prior to start of trial seems far-fetched. I don’t think anyone on either side wants to be have this debate coincide with the federal trial.”

State Sen. Kathy Sheran
State Sen. Kathy Sheran

That doesn’t mean he’s not open to some changes. Zerwas says House Republicans could agree to some — but not all — of the changes recommended by the sex offender task force and passed by the Senate. And they favor creating less restricted facilities outside of the razor wire but still on the MSOP campuses in St. Peter and Moose Lake, instead of spreading offenders out into communities across the state, he said.

“We want to make sure the setting is appropriate and safe for everybody,” he said. “We firmly agree with the attorney general that the program is fully constitutional. That being said, if there are a handful of ways to improve the efficiency and operation of the program while preserving public safety we would be open to that.” 

With one campus of the program in her Senate district, Sheran understands the kind of public anxiety that comes with having sex offenders living in a community, even under intense supervision. “The public has a lot of anxiety about this. Legislators are sensitive to that,” she said. “The constituents’ anxiety creates a caution in many elected officials and, I think, leads them to the conclusion to let the court deal with this. I think we have to act.”