Dayton says sex offender conference 'constructive, civil' but inconclusive

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton attended a conference Monday to begin talks on fixing flaws in the state's residential sex offender program, which has been deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge.

ST. PAUL - Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton attended a conference Monday to begin talks on fixing flaws in the state’s residential sex offender program, which has been deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge.

Dayton proposed two possible efforts: implementing regular biennial assessments of all offenders, which he estimated would cost about $7 million per year, and funding construction of less-restrictive facilities, which would cost about $15 million, he said.
Dayton participated in Monday’s three-hour discussion, which the judge closed to the media and public, along with many other top-ranking state officials and lawmakers.
Though the conversation was “very constructive, very civil,” there were no final or official decisions made, Dayton said.
The governor defended the program’s constitutionality and said he intends to appeal the June ruling in which U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank called the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) unconstitutional and suggested sweeping changes.
In that ruling, Frank called for Monday’s meeting and requested attendance of many of the state’s top-ranking officials and lawmakers. The goal was to discuss possible solutions to the myriad program flaws, focusing on the fact that no one has ever been released from MSOP even though it’s held out to be a treatment program that aims to reintegrate offenders into society.
Sex offenders end up in MSOP via civil commitment by the state, after serving prison or jail time. About 720 residents are in the program, which consists of two high-security facilities and one small, less-secure facility.
The program, in its current form, began in 1994.
Treatment is voluntary and consists of three phases. In order to be released, offenders must meet criteria in each treatment phase.
But the treatment program has been criticized as inconsistent and ineffective. Offenders say that the requirements are unclear and that it’s difficult to move from one phase to the next. Some offenders remain in one phase for years; others have been there so long they’ve been sent back to start the phases over when a new administration takes over the program.
The program’s problems entered the public spotlight in 2011 when the residents filed a federal class-action lawsuit. Residents and critics have said the program amounts to a prison sentence with no expiration date.
Dayton said after Monday’s meeting that Frank has indicated he’d like to see changes made before March, when the next legislative session begins, “which would seem to indicate the need for a special session.”
But Dayton said the bonding process for funding, followed by planning and actual construction of buildings, could take more than a year.
Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, who introduced legislation that would have addressed some of the needed fixes, was also at Monday’s meeting.
“The judge was pretty clear that the conversation was not about whether or not we agreed with the ruling, but what the remedies would be to (satisfy) the ruling,” Sheran said.
She said many at the table were supportive of creating less-restrictive alternatives or facilities for offenders and there were other suggestions offered, like changes to how a person’s commitment can be petitioned or dismissed. The atmosphere was nonjudgmental, she said.
But there were some frustrating moments.
“There was a statement that punishment is a good thing, that the public wants these people punished,” Sheran said. “But that seems to forget that these people have already been punished and that you can’t use the civil commitment process to punish people. That’s the essence of this case.”
She said Frank told the parties to continue their conversations and to come back to him with a list of remedies soon and that he intends to issue an order before the end of the year. Frank did not offer a date certain, Sheran said.
The governor and attorney general’s plan to appeal Frank’s decision will no doubt slow the process of making changes, but the changes will be ordered nonetheless, Sheran said. The only way Frank’s remedies won’t be implemented is if the appeal moves forward and the next court throws out everything Frank ordered, she said.
“As elected officials, we’ve sworn an oath to uphold the constitution. We shouldn’t have to wait for the court to tell us what to do,” Sheran said. “Of course there are those who say this is unconstitutional, but I don’t know what they could possibly base that on. The issue isn’t whether or not you can use civil commitment; that’s already been determined as constitutional. This is about lack of progresssion, the lack of reviews...that’s what’s at hand here.”

Related Topics: CRIME
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