MINNEAPOLIS — Experts reviewing Minnesota's civil commitment program for sex offenders are recommending that staff begin creating plans to discharge clients when they are first admitted to the program, and that residents be periodically evaluated to ensure they meet criteria for confinement.
The recommendations are among dozens issued Tuesday by experts who have spent months evaluating residents, treatment standards and polices at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program.
The panel said there should be clear standards for discharging clients, the discharge process should be streamlined and the state should develop community resources to prepare for clients' release.
The panel also said the state's civil commitment statute should be changed to ensure it's used only for the most dangerous sex offenders at the highest risk to reoffend. The experts wrote that even if the program were the best of its type, "the current legislative and commitment and release framework would continue to call into question whether the intent is to provide treatment ... or if the intent is to provide for a lifetime of confinement for certain people who have sexually offended."
Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said she appreciated the review.
"We will carefully examine the report and its recommendations before deciding our next steps," she said in a statement.
The four-person panel has been reviewing the Minnesota Sex Offender Program as part of a class-action lawsuit filed in 2011 by residents who allege it's unconstitutional because it keeps them locked up indefinitely without providing adequate treatment. More than 700 people deemed sexually dangerous or sexual psychopaths have been committed to high-security facilities in Moose Lake or St. Peter after their prison terms were completed. Only one resident has been successfully released, with provisions, since 1994.
The case has been split into two phases, with phase one scheduled for trial on Feb. 9.
Dan Gustafson, an attorney for the residents, said he's pleased with the report.
"It's helpful to our case and it's going to be an important piece of testimony in the February trial," Gustafson said.
The report says the panel reviewed 191 of 721 client charts and interviewed 39 people. The bulk of the work focused on clients in specialized programs: those who were committed for offending when they were juveniles but had no adult sex convictions; those in an assisted-living unit; and residents with mental illness or diminished intellect.
For the 62 individuals with no adult criminal convictions, the panel found most would be eligible for discharge.
"The majority of these individuals with juvenile-only offending should not have been civilly committed in the first place and, if they had been appropriately assessed, they would not have met criteria for commitment," the report says.
The panel also recommended:
— evaluation of recently admitted clients to see if they meet standards for commitment; if they don't, officials should petition for their immediate release;
— proactive assessments of clients to determine if they're ready to petition for discharge;
— that the program be allowed to move clients to a less-restrictive environment within the program without review board and appeals court panel approval;
— and establishing a time frame for the court to make discharge decisions.
The report makes numerous recommendations for improved staff training and supervision and says the focus of treatment should be broadened to include issues such as mental health problems or substance abuse.
It also praises the program for programs that provide residents with educational, vocational and other opportunities.
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