ST. PAUL, Minnesota — A federal judge refused Thursday to throw out the lawsuit challenging Minnesota's treatment system for sex offenders, calling it "draconian" and "clearly broken," and once again urged Minnesota lawmakers to make major changes.
Residents of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program contended in the lawsuit that the program amounts to prison-like confinement for people who've finished prison terms.
U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank wrote in a 75-page ruling that despite the state's attempt to get it thrown out, the suit "easily survives dismissal." While plaintiffs have yet to prove their case that the confinement is unconstitutional, Frank wrote, he made it clear in a strongly worded ruling that they have a good chance.
"Given the prison-like conditions described by Plaintiffs, and the lack of treatment and essentially no-exit regime alleged in this case, it may well be that, with a fully developed record, the Court will find the totality of the (Minnesota Sex Offender Program) system to be unacceptably and unconstitutionally punitive," Frank wrote.
The program has come under fire in recent years over questions about its constitutionality and high costs. Nearly 700 sex offenders have been civilly committed to high-security facilities in Moose Lake or St. Peter after their prison terms were completed.
Minnesota has the highest number of civilly committed sex offenders per capita among 20 states with such programs, and more committed sex offenders than any state besides California and Florida. The Department of Human Services has projected Minnesota's population to nearly double between 2010 and 2020 at the current rate of commitment.
Attorneys for residents argue the program amounts to a life sentence; in the program's 20-year history, only two residents have been provisionally released and none have been fully released.
Minnesota's commitment laws have survived legal challenges when it was shown their purpose was treatment, not detention — which plaintiffs now argue is disproven by such low rates of release.
Dan Gustafson, an attorney for residents of the program, said the judge made it clear the status quo will no longer be accepted.
"He recognized there are serious problems with the program and he wants to get to the bottom of it," Gustafson said Thursday. "This is a step in the right direction. It puts us on a path of resolving these issues, and I think a resolution is coming in the not-too-distant future."
While attorneys for the state of Minnesota have argued the program meets acceptable standards, Gov. Mark Dayton and members of his administration have said lawmakers must replace it or be forced to watch Frank dismantle it.
"The ruling raises questions about the future of Minnesota's civil commitment system for sex offenders, and we urge the full Legislature, on a bipartisan basis, to address this issue in the coming weeks and months," said Lucinda Jesson, commissioner of the Department of Human Services, which administers the program.
Advocates for victims of sexual assault praised Frank's decision and said it's time for legislators to fix the program.
"It's time to shift the conversation from what to do with 700 people to what we really need to do to prevent 61,000 from being sexually assaulted in Minnesota each year," Donna Dunn, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said in a statement Thursday.
In December, a 22-member panel recommended a major overhaul of the program intended to make it easier for sex offenders to finish treatment. Some lawmakers have been crafting a bill, though it's likely challenging to change laws governing sex offenders in an election year.
Still, Frank strongly urged legislative action — and suggested he could rule for plaintiffs, depending what evidence turns up in the discovery process.
"The time for legislative action is now," Frank said. He went on: "The politicians of this great State must now ask themselves if they will act to revise a system that is clearly broken, or stand idly by and do nothing, simply awaiting Court intervention."
Associated Press reporters Steve Karnowski and Jeff Baenen in Minneapolis contributed to this report.