The Minnesota Senate is holding a hearing today on how to reform the state's sex offender program. The controversial program has kept hundreds of people locked up long after their prison sentences expire.
The Minnesota Sex Offender Program is structured in such a way that shortly before a sex offender is released from prison, a judge can – with less burden of proof than is required in criminal cases – order that the offender continue to be held in a treatment facility aimed at rehabilitating them. The process is called civil commitment. “Civil” in this case means “involuntary.” Reuter's FindLaw database explains:
The commitment is intended to reduce the risk of future dangerous sexual behavior. It is not meant to serve a punishment for past crimes. Civilly committed sex offenders may be held for an indeterminate amount of time. In other words, they may be held as long as warranted to successfully treat them and to satisfy public safety concerns.
Though FindLaw describes the Minnesota law as “fairly typical,” U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank has taken a more critical approach. He is overseeing a class action lawsuit against the state and cautions that the program may be unconstitutional. Frank warned that the program is conducted in an unconstitutional manner, and that it had to be overhauled immediately or else face a potential federal takeover.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press states that “in nearly two decades since the program began, only one sex offender has been conditionally released.” Over the last decade, the number of committed individuals shot up from 200 to 698. This gives it a higher per capita detention rate than any of the other 16 states with similar programs, and makes Minnesota “the nation's leader in indefinitely detaining such offenders.” The number of detainees would be higher, but as the Wall Street Journal explains, “two dozen offenders have died while being held.”
The problem has been exacerbated by the state government's political parlaying. Several sources have noted that both Republicans and Democrats seem less concerned with treating hundreds of people justly and more concerned with protecting their own political future in case one of the criminals reoffends. Although Governor Mark Dayton (D) supported releasing certain criminals, he quickly backed off following bad press and halted any releases until the state legislature comes up with a solution. Likewise, although Sen. Warren Limmer (R), the ranking Republican on today's Senate panel, has openly criticized the civil commitment program, his party has largely opposed previous legislative attempts to change it.