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Published June 03, 2013, 11:22 AM

Minnesota Legislature leaves sex offender program untouched

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Legislature passed up a chance this session to rework Minnesota's sex offender program, raising the possibility that a federal judge will rule it unconstitutional.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Legislature passed up a chance this session to rework Minnesota's sex offender program, raising the possibility that a federal judge will rule it unconstitutional.

The program is meant to provide treatment, but it has released only one of about 700 people who are being indefinitely detained after they've completed their prison sentences. The program costs the state $326 a day to hold and treat each offender, triple the average cost of keeping an offender in prison.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank and Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Keyes are overseeing a class-action lawsuit challenging the program's constitutionality.

The attention has shifted back to the court given that lawmakers passed no legislation during the recent session to address the constitutional concerns, Minnesota Public Radio reported Monday. The court could leave the program as is or order changes. The state could try to address some of the concerns on its own. Or the plaintiffs could still reach a settlement with the state.

Former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson has been warning that the court could impose a solution that lawmakers might not like.

"The judge is going to bring out a broadsword and he's going to ... simply chop it into small bits and then say, 'Fix it,'" Magnuson said. "And he's not going to have much patience particularly for the state. They've had plenty of time to look at this, and he's going to tell them they have to get it done now."

Magnuson leads a commission that was mandated by the judges to make recommendations for changing the program. Its final findings are due in December.

Some Republicans thought Magnuson was bluffing. Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, expressed doubt that the court will overturn the current system.

A federal judge in Washington state found its sex offender civil commitment process unconstitutional in the 1990s. That ruling kicked off 15 years of court oversight of reform. Eventually, Washington set up a less restrictive community-based transitional facility for offenders.

Something similar might happen in Minnesota, Magnuson said, but he doesn't expect Minnesota's detainees will be suddenly be released from the program in a flood.

Lucinda Jesson, the commissioner of the Department of Human Services, which oversees the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, said that for now her department can try to address some of the problems detailed in the class-action suit. For example, Jesson said the department plans more frequent mental health assessments of people in the program to ensure they're progressing through treatment as quickly as appropriate.

The department could also settle. It may even agree to more generous terms than the court would order, said Dan Gustafson, the court-appointed attorney for the sex offenders suing the state.

"I can't go into the details of what we've talked about, but we've made several proposals, and the state has responded to them," Gustafson said. "I think that the executive branch of the state and even many of the legislators recognize that the ... current program isn't working. They continue to commit people, and no one ever gets out.

"But it's a very difficult political problem to solve," he added, "because nobody wants to shoulder the political burden of changing a program that might release somebody out to the public who's perceived to be dangerous."

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