Civil Rights

Minnesota Sex-Offender Treatment Program is 'Draconian,' Possibly Illegal, Says Judge

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Locked gate|||Torbakhopper/Flickr

The rights of Minnesota sex offenders are likely being violated by a "clearly broken" and "draconian" state treatment program writes U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank. In a 75-page decision* issued Thursday, Frank told legislators to reform the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) pronto or the court would intervene.

The MSOP—home to nearly 700 sex offenders—is a court-ordered, post-prison destination of indefinite duration and questionable constitutionality. A suit brought by hundreds of sex offenders claims the program isn't really about "treatment" but detaining and punishing offenders who've completed their prison terms. As of August 2013, MSOP had only released two offenders ever in its 19-year history. 

Frank didn't rule on the merits of their claims, but his decision will allow the constitutional challenge to proceed. He denied the state's motions to dismiss 12 out of 13 claims filed by plaintiffs and called for a panel of court-appointed experts to gather further evidence. "The time for legislative action is now," Frank wrote. 

Gov. Mark Dayton and some lawmakers have, in fact, been trying for legislative action. But their previous efforts to reform MSOP have failed, largely due to Congressional squeamishness.

In a remarkably obtuse statement, Rep. Tony Cornish (R-Vernon Center) admitted that the MSOP violates offenders' civil rights…but also that he doesn't care. "Why would any legislator touch this issue?" Cornish said to the Star Tribune. "Are you that worried about the civil rights of sex offenders? I admit it, I don't have the courage to have a sex offender released in my hometown."

Fortunately, personal cowardice isn't really a sound legal basis for keeping folks locked up indefinitely. It's now up to Minnesota legislators to come up with a path forward or face a federal court ruling that declares the whole business unconstitutional. That could lead to hundreds of sex offenders being released en masse, and something tells me constituents might frown on that a little more than the enactment of a sensible reform policy.