Judge to rule on constitutionality of Minnesota Sex Offender Program

ST. PAUL -- A highly anticipated federal court ruling expected this week will likely have a major impact on the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, which has been challenged as unconstitutional.

ST. PAUL - A highly anticipated federal court ruling expected this week will likely have a major impact on the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, which has been challenged as unconstitutional.

There was hope the Legislature would tackle the issue before the end of the regular session, but lawmakers made no progress.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank, who said he’ll issue his order Wednesday, fired a warning shot last year. He called the sex offender program “one of the most draconian sex offender programs in existence” and said, “The time for legislative action is now.”

The program allows the state to civilly commit offenders for an indeterminate amount of time after their prison sentences expire.

His call for action came on the heels of a Legislative Auditor’s report and a review by a court-ordered task force, both of which offered myriad improvement suggestions.


A couple of proposed bills during this year’s legislative session would have addressed program changes, but they went nowhere. And proposals by Gov. Mark Dayton to dedicate funds for residential transition housing never got traction.

Frank’s ruling could force the state to make changes it failed to do on its own and could force legislators into another special session.

The Minnesota Sex Offender Program, created in the mid-1990s, allows the courts to civilly commit sex offenders who have already served their jail or prison time, ostensibly to receive treatment, if they are deemed likely to recommit. People committed into the program can then be held indefinitely at the secure state hospital in St. Peter or a state treatment center in Moose Lake.

The program currently has 715 sex offenders, ranging in age from 21 to 93.

In its 20-year existence, only two people have been provisionally released; no one has ever been deemed successfully treated and fully discharged from the program.

In 2011, program residents filed a federal class-action lawsuit, calling the sex offender program unconstitutional because releases are so uncommon that the commitments amount to life sentences. The program’s treatment aspect has also been criticized as inadequate.

Trial proceedings ended in mid-March.

Judge Frank is tasked with determining whether the program is constitutional; he has judicial authority to call for specific changes.


“He’s a federal judge. He has extensive power. Just stating the bottom line: Yes, he can force them to do it,” said Eric Janus, president and dean of William Mitchell College of Law, who represented a sex offender who challenged the program in the 1990s and who has followed the class-action case closely.

Janus continued, “If (Frank) finds this program to be flagrantly unconstitutional, he could shut it down. It would mean the release (of offenders). That’s unlikely to happen. But the point is, in the background, he has that power. And therefore he has the ability to say, ‘You must do X, Y and Z if you want to keep running this program.’ ”

Politics has stalled action at the Capitol, Janus said.

There’s a perception that the program is housing the worst of the worst, when in actuality a broad range of offenders is locked up, he said.

“The other political issue is that to do any kind of systematic and comprehensive community-based services for individuals released, there’s going to need to be some facilities established. Then you’ll have the ‘not in my backyard’ phenomenon,” Janus said. “Put those two things together and it’s a pretty powerful political issue.”

There were some legislative efforts to heed the judge’s warnings.

Dayton said the state should add $7 million to its budget for the next two years to fund biannual evaluations of each participant in the sex offender program, open some secure but less restrictive treatment facilities and add money for judges to speed review of provisional discharge petitions.

Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, and Sen. Kathy Sheran , DFL-Mankato, both introduced legislation to address some needed changes to the program, but neither got legislative approval.


Last week, Dayton tried again. He suggested providing $560,000 for design and purchase of land for two new residential treatment facilities for as many as 50 sex offenders on course for eventual release. The proposal was scrapped before the special session started.

Without solutions from lawmakers, the judge is expected to issue his own.

What To Read Next
The system crashed earlier this month, grounding flights across the U.S.