Sex offender court order expected in October, but case will go for years
ST. PAUL -- Minnesota officials make it clear that they will not obey an upcoming federal judge's order that would deem the state sex offender treatment program unconstitutional.
ST. PAUL - Minnesota officials make it clear that they will not obey an upcoming federal judge’s order that would deem the state sex offender treatment program unconstitutional.
Instead, they will appeal the order, which Judge Donovan Frank will issue in October after ruling in June that the sex offender program violates the U.S. Constitution.
Frank’s June ruling indicates that sex offenders may be committed to the program with no chance to get out, which results in what amounts to an unconstitutional life sentence.
“We continue to believe the program as it is being run today is constitutional, and we want to be able to appeal the judge’s ruling ... as soon as we can,” Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said after a Wednesday hearing with Frank.
While the state disagrees with the June ruling that the program violates the U.S. Constitution, it has no grounds to appeal it until the judge orders the state to take a specific action, which is expected in Frank’s upcoming ruling.
The ruling will be a key marker in the case, but not the end.
Many Minnesota sex offenders have fought a state treatment program in court for years. Nearly four months ago, Frank agreed with them that the program violates the U.S. Constitution. Next up, the judge is expected to order changes within 30 days. But it could be two years before the issue is resolved.
Everyone sitting in the courtroom for two-plus hours Wednesday knew the final decision likely would not be in Frank’s hands.
Attorney Dan Gustafson, who represents sex offenders in two state hospitals, said he expects the federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals to decide the case a year or two after the state appeals
Just before he adjourned the hearing, Frank made some vague comments about letters he has received from patients in the sex offender program that apparently threatened a disruption at the two facilities.
“Everyone has a job to do,” Frank said. “I am asking everyone to treat people in a civil way. ... Let’s see if we can make the system work.”
In an interview, Jesson said she did not know of any specific threat made against the treatment program staff. “I think he was just encouraging everyone to keep calm.”
During the hearing, there was discussion about frustration felt by patients who have been legally committed to the program, held in prison-like conditions for years but with no hope of release.
The program was designed to treat sex offenders so they could be released into the community, but in two decades, no one has been fully released.
Courts commit offenders to the program after they have served prison sentences. Offenders who sued the state say that amounts to a life sentence, more than state law allows.
More than 700 offenders are in the program, which experienced rapid growth after the 2003 kidnapping and death of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin at the hands of a Crookston man who had just finished his sentence for sex crimes.
Gustafson gave Frank a long list of changes his clients want made, most of which would make it possible for offenders to be released. The state, however, argues that the program is constitutional and changes are being made.
“The governor and I have been supportive of additional reforms ...” Jesson told reporters after the hearing. “Our point is the program as it is being run today is constitutional. We ought to be talking about these reforms in the Legislature, and they should not be directed by the court.”
She added: “I believe we are, in careful steps, making progress in this program.”
Gustafson, however, said some reforms “need to be enacted now.”
The attorney told Frank the court has “broad and flexible powers” to change the program. However, he and Frank said that power does not reach the level of a mass sex offender release.
One of Gustafson’s proposals is to require an annual assessment of each patient to see if they are ready for release. He also suggests that workers in the program need more training.