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Judge declares sex offender program unconstitutional; orders state to develop ‘suitable remedies’

In the ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank laid out 16 conditions that lawmakers and the state must meet in order to satisfy his concerns with the program.

Judge Donovan W. Frank
Judge Donovan W. Frank

After more than three years of legal motions, court orders and stern warnings, a federal judge has declared Minnesota’s program for treating its most dangerous sex offenders unconstitutional.

The Wednesday morning ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank said the Minnesota Sex Offender Treatment Program (MSOP) locks up more than 700 sex offenders in maximum-security facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter with no hope of ever getting out. Most offenders in the program have already completed their prison sentence but were committed to the program by a county judge because they could still pose a danger to society. In the 20-year history of MSOP, only two people have ever been successfully provisionally released from the program. No one has ever been granted full release. 

The ruling doesn’t call for any immediate release of offenders, but it requires state officials, legislators and other stakeholders to present “suitable remedies” for the program at an Aug. 10 hearing.

“It is fundamental to our notions of a free society that we do not imprison citizens because we fear that they might commit a crime in the future,” Frank said in the 76-page ruling. 

Using words like hopelessness” and “despair,” Frank described the situation for clients indefinitely locked in the program. He noted specific clients in the case, including Rhonda Bailey, the only woman ever committed to the program, and Eric Terhaar, an offender who is part of a group of more than 50 people in the program who have no adult criminal record.

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Frank also called out lawmakers for repeatedly failing to make changes to the program, even after he called the program “draconian” and outlined issues in a court order last year.

“The Court must emphasize that politics or political pressures cannot trump the fundamental rights of Class Members who, pursuant to state law, have been civilly committed to receive treatment,” wrote Frank. The Constitution protects individual rights even when they are unpopular.” 

In the ruling, Frank lays out 16 things the state and lawmakers could do to address concerns with the program. They include developing less-restrictive alternatives, like halfway houses or group homes, for offenders who are no longer considered a danger to society. The state must also regularly evaluate those in the program. There’s no current requirement for evaluation in state law.

In a statement, Gov. Mark Dayton defended the constitutionality of the program.

“We continue to believe that both the Minnesota Sex Offender Program and the civil commitment statute are constitutional,” Dayton said. “We will work with the Attorney General to defend Minnesota’s law. As the Federal Judge has not ordered any releases, there will be no immediate changes to this program as a result of this ruling.”