A federal judge ruled Minnesota's post-prison sex offender program as unconstitutional Wednesday, and said if the state didn't come up with a better plan, he may be forced to release hundreds of offenders currently undergoing treatment at two facilities.
US District Judge Donovan Frank ruled in favor of plaintiffs who were committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP), saying the program violated their "fundamental rights" because the patients had little hope of ever attaining freedom, even after they had completed their jail terms.
"The Constitution protects individual rights even when they are unpopular," Frank wrote in his decision.
More than 700 patients are currently committed to MSOP, all of whom have been court-ordered to receive post-prison sex offender treatment at two facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter. A person can be committed for treatment if a judge determines the individual has a "sexual psychopathic personality" or is "a sexually dangerous person." The convicted offenders are placed in the treatment program for an undetermined amount of time.
Frank's decision came in response to a class action lawsuit filed in 2011 on behalf of program residents at both facilities. Lawyers for the patients argued that the law is unconstitutional because it allows sex offenders to be committed after they complete their prison sentences. Those patients have very little chance of getting discharged, even if they respond well to treatment and are judged unlikely to commit new crimes, the lawyers said.
Since the program began more than 20 years ago, no one has been fully discharged from the facilities, although two patients are currently on provisional discharge and are being strictly monitored. Comparatively, neighboring Wisconsin has released some 118 patients from its program since 1994.
Minnesota currently has the highest number of civilly committed sex offenders per capita, compared with at least 20 states that have a similar program.
In the lawsuit, plaintiffs said that unlike those other states, MSOP doesn't complete regular risk assessments to determine whether patients are still dangerous. Additionally, the burden falls on patients to pursue review and release, instead of the state recommending reduced restrictions or release for those who have made progress, they said.
But the patients also said it was difficult to progress in treatment, claiming staff regularly administer infractions for minor behavior unrelated to sex offenses and misapply the program's scoring criteria. They also cited problems such as a high staff turnover rate leading to chronic understaffing at the facilities.
The judge deferred immediate action following the ruling, but recommended multiple reforms to the program the state could make, including the creation of "alternate less restrictive facilities."
Frank told officials that failure to draw up an acceptable reforms plan to bring to proceedings in August may force him to shutter the two facilities or release the patients.
Minnesota has spent millions to expand and update the facilities and has struggled with the rising costs of its sex offender policies. State lawmakers have continually resisted changes to the program. This year they blocked a proposal to build two facilities aimed at housing sex offenders on course for release.
Dan Gustafson, lead attorney for the patients, applauded Frank's judgment Wednesday, saying his order "reaffirms that all people, no matter how disliked they are or how reprehensible their prior conduct, are entitled to constitutional protection."
The state continues to defend the quality of the program and claimed that the plaintiffs had not proven constitutional violations.
Governor Mark Dayton and his human services commissioner said the state would "defend the law," in a statement released after the ruling, but they did not say whether an appeal was certain.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.