Judge rules Minnesota sex offender program unconstitutional

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MINNEAPOLIS–A federal judge has ruled that Minnesota’s sex offender treatment program is unconstitutional, but has deferred any immediate action to await further proceedings on a remedy.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank largely sided with the more than 700 residents who were civilly committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program after they completed their prison sentences.

Their lawyers argued during a nearly six-week bench trial that the program is unconstitutional because nobody has ever been fully discharged from it, even those thought to be at low risk of committing new crimes.

The state says it has improved the program, including moving more patients through treatment and perhaps toward provisional release.

Frank said proceedings to determine a remedy will begin in August, and he’s calling on Minnesota’s top leaders, including Gov. Mark Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, to personally appear in court to help devise an alternative structure to the program to avoid having the entire program be eliminated and resulting in the release of civilly committed offenders in secure facilities.

Gov. Dayton said in response that there won’t be immediate changes, and that he’ll work with the state attorney general to continue to defend the program. It wasn’t clear if that means an appeal to a higher court or some other course of action.

The head of the state agency that runs the Minnesota Sex Offender Program also said there won’t be any immediate releases or changes in how it operates as a result of the decision.

Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said in a statement Wednesday that her agency’s focus continues to be effective operation of the program, as well as defending the constitutionality of it and the state’s civil commitment law for sex offenders.

Meanwhile, Minnesota Rep. Matt Dean says reluctance to alter the state’s sex offender treatment program isn’t a sign of political fear but instead a fundamental belief that locking those people away indefinitely is just.

Dan Gustafson, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said Wednesday’s order from U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank “highlights the complete failure of the political system in Minnesota” to fix the program and “reaffirms that all people, no matter how disliked they are or how reprehensible their prior conduct, are entitled to Constitutional protection.”