Beyond the Bill: What to do with 700-plus sex offenders? Pressure builds for answer


Under court order to treat and release clients held in treatment program, DHS proposes biennial reviews and scattered-site placements.

Even sex offenders have constitutional rights.

Finished with their prison sentences, about 680 sex offenders have been civilly committed by the courts and placed in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program for an indeterminate period of time. A judge may have determined them to have a sexual psychopathic personality, be a sexually dangerous person or both.

Yet, under pressure from a federal court, Minnesota is faced with the challenge of releasing more people who were court-ordered to treatment at the MSOP facilities in Moose Lake or St. Peter. To date, only one individual has been granted a provisional release. Holding the rest of them indefinitely is unconstitutional, according to the court.

“The people who are in this program nobody wants for their neighbor. But they have constitutional rights. That means we have to set up systems that are constitutional and actually work,” said Rep. Jim Abeler (R-Anoka).

The Sex Offender Civil Commitment Advisory Task Force studied the issue and the Department of Human Services began looking at modifying the way clients move through treatment, including alternatives to moving to the Moose Lake facility. Proposed changes are contained in SF1014 sponsored by Sen. Kathy Sheran (DFL-Mankato), which the Senate passed 44-21 on Tuesday. It now awaits action in the House, where Rep. Tina Liebling (DFL-Rochester) is the sponsor.

The House Judiciary Finance and Policy Committee approved the companion bill, HF1139, 5-3 on May 10 and referred it to the House Rules and Legislative Administration Committee.

Two options

The bill would authorize judges to commit offenders to one of two options: the MSOP facility or placement in a “Strict and Intensive Supervision and Treatment” program, or SIST. Each client’s placement and treatment progress, or lack of progress, would be reviewed every two years.

“We’re talking about managing a population that’s already there and continuing to grow,” Liebling said. An estimated 50 newly released sex offenders could be court-ordered into the treatment program each year, according to the Department of Human Services.

“The way to make sure that the treatment is effective is to have this independent group of examiners who review each patient’s progress at least every two years,” Liebling said.

Recognizing that newly released sex offenders may be diverted from entering MSOP, DHS has asked public and private treatment programs to submit information about whether they could provide ongoing treatment following release. The department received more than 20 responses, which could include day treatment, foster home settings, apartments and monitoring individuals by GPS with ankle bracelets. Some programs have prior experience treating sex offenders while other responders currently offer in-patient treatment services for other problems, such as alcohol and drug addictions. If legislators warm to the idea of scattered site treatment centers, the next step would be to request program proposals from the respondents.

“Obviously there are lots of places where it wouldn’t be appropriate to put this kind of facility, but if we say there is no place, then we’re really in a pickle,” Liebling said.

But some committee members were reluctant to vote on the bill, saying it wasn’t “ready for prime time.”

“I don’t want to be in a position of learning what this does after I vote on it,” said Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa).

Not willing to wait

But Abeler wasn’t willing to wait until the 2014 legislative session to act.

“I don’t know how we as legislators, sworn to uphold the constitution, do nothing with the threat of (federal) action or otherwise. We have a job to do. Is this a scary bunch of people to deal with? Could one of these people re-offend? Absolutely. There are ways to set aside who is high risk and who is low risk. We’re not even doing that,” he said.

Rep. Tony Cornish (R-Vernon Center) predicted that cities and counties will pass ordinances prohibiting the location of the treatment centers in their communities. “Basically we’re going to have to shove this down their throat.”

His approach would be further upstream in the court system. He suggested creating a new class of criminal called a “predatory sex offender” which calls for a 60-year prison sentence.

“That stops the flow to the sex offender program. With incarceration, you don’t run into the constitutional problem because you don’t have to treat them when they’re incarcerated,” Cornish said.

There is also the political consequence to consider. No member wants to be labeled soft on crime. “Is there political peril in this? Absolutely,” said Abeler.

For others, the cost of operating MSOP is the driving force behind their support. It costs the state about $120,000 a year for each person in treatment. Keeping them in prison is about one-third of the cost.

“The trend that we’re on is unsustainable,” said Rep. Michael Paymar (DFL-St. Paul). He called the bill a “good first step. I think we have to give this a chance.”

Rep. Debra Hillstrom (DFL-Brooklyn Center), chair of the committee, puts her faith in the courts knowing when to commit someone into the program and when to discharge them back into society.

“It is court in and court out. And all of the evaluations about what level of care, security and treatment is going to be determined through the courts, and I have a high amount of regard for the court and their ability to assess,” Hillstrom said.

Beyond the Bill is an occassional feature that looks at the issues driving legislation.