Latest on sex offender law: Professor: Decree a condemnation

AP News
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Posted: Jun 17, 2015 5:55 PM

4:45 p.m. CDT

A law professor who's been deeply involved in the legal fight over the Minnesota Sex Offender Program since its inception says he's not surprised a judge declared it unconstitutional.

William Mitchell College of Law President and Dean Eric Janus says U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank delivered a "sweeping condemnation" Wednesday of both the program and the state law that allows indefinite commitments of sex offenders who've finished their prison sentences.

But Janus says Frank made it clear he's not going to shut the program down. He says Frank acknowledged that there are some offenders who could remain committed if the program is operated correctly.

Janus has been involved in the debate since 1992, when he joined the defense team in the landmark case of convicted rapist and killer Dennis Linehan.

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4:15 p.m. CDT

Gov. Mark Dayton and Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson say they believe the Minnesota Sex Offender Program is constitutional and plan to defend it. However, they stopped short Wednesday of saying they would appeal a judge's declaration that it's unconstitutional.

Former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson says he doesn't believe U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank's order is appealable yet because the case isn't over and he hasn't entered a final order. He says the state likely will have to wait until Frank actually orders it do something.

Magnuson is an appellate law expert who also chaired a task force that recommended an extensive overhaul of the program in 2013. He had urged legislators to act rather than run the risk of letting the courts dismantle the program.

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3:20 p.m. CDT

A top Minnesota House Republican says reluctance to alter the state's sex offender treatment program isn't a sign of political fear but instead a fundamental belief that locking those people away indefinitely is just.

Rep. Matt Dean said that despite a federal judge's ruling Wednesday that the civil commitment law for sex offenders is unconstitutional, he won't rush to make significant changes. Dean, who is chairman of a House committee with jurisdiction over the sex-offender program, notes that the judge's ruling didn't impose required changes or a deadline for altering existing practice.

Dean says the more than 700 offenders in two secure treatment facilities are clinically diagnosed as serious threats to commit new sex crimes and therefore justifiably confined.

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2:45 p.m. CDT

A Minnesota lawmaker who has pushed for changes to the state's sex offender treatment program says discussions on fixes should start even if the state challenges a judge who ruled the program unconstitutional.

Sen. Kathy Sheran said Wednesday's ruling on the confinement program means lawmakers can't dodge a tough topic. Past attempts to alter the program have stalled at the Capitol.

Gov. Mark Dayton says he will continue to defend the law and treatment program in court. Sheran, a fellow Democrat, says Dayton and lawmakers should immediately begin work on a fallback option.

She says lawmakers who want sex offenders locked up indefinitely must seek sentencing law changes. But even then, offenders in the civil commitment program wouldn't be subject to stiffer penalties and their situations must be dealt with.

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12:15 p.m. CDT

The head of the state agency that runs the Minnesota Sex Offender Program says there won't be any immediate releases or changes in how it operates as a result of a federal judge's declaration that it's unconstitutional.

Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said in a statement Wednesday that her agency's focus continues to be effective operation of the program, as well as defending the constitutionality of it and the state's civil commitment law for sex offenders.

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12:10 p.m.

The lead attorney who successfully challenged the constitutionality of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program says fixing it will require a combination of legislation and executive action.

Dan Gustafson said at a news conference Wednesday the Department of Human Services, which runs the program, can make some changes by itself. But he says some will require more money that will have to come from the Legislature if the department can't reallocate enough money within its own budget.

And he says there are some things in the state's civil commitment law —like the lack of a judicial bypass that would let program residents go directly to court to seek release — that only the Legislature can change.

If that requires a special session at some point, Gustafson says they'll ask for that.

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11:55 a.m. CDT

Gov. Mark Dayton says there won't be immediate changes to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in response to a federal judge's ruling that it's unconstitutional.

Dayton's statement Wednesday came after the judge said the state has an unconstitutional civil commitment program that indefinitely sends dangerous offenders into a medical lockup. The Democratic governor says he'll work with the state attorney general to continue to defend the program. It wasn't clear if that means an appeal to a higher court or some other course of action.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank has called on state leaders, including Dayton, to present him with potential remedies in August. For now the judge is not ordering the release of any of the 700 sex offenders confined in secure St. Peter and Moose Lake facilities.

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11:35 a.m. CDT

A federal judge's ruling that condemns Minnesota's sex offender treatment program is critical of the political considerations that have stymied efforts to change it.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank found the secure, civil confinement program unconstitutional. He is convening state leaders for an August remedies phase but says he is prepared to act if they don't.

Throughout his 76-page ruling, Frank says elected officials have been reluctant to modify the indefinite confinement of more than 700 sex offenders out of political fear. But Frank says "politics or political pressures cannot trump the fundamental rights" of those in the program.

He stressed that the U.S. Constitution "protects individual rights even when they are unpopular."

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11:20 a.m. CDT

A federal judge is calling on Minnesota government's top leaders to personally appear in court to help come up with an alternative structure to a sex offender confinement program he found unconstitutional.

U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank listed Gov. Mark Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk among those he wants to take part in a remedies phase that will start on Aug. 10. Frank says stakeholders must fashion a suitable remedy to avoid having the entire program be eliminated and resulting in the release of civilly committed offenders in secure facilities.

In Wednesday's ruling, the judge lays out more than a dozen conditions for a restructured program, including that less-restrictive alternatives be implemented and new evaluation and discharge procedures be developed.

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11:10 a.m. CDT

The lead attorney for the plaintiffs who successfully challenged the constitutionality of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program says they're pleased and believe the court came to the right decision.

Dan Gustafson says Wednesday's order from U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank "highlights the complete failure of the political system in Minnesota" to fix the program and "reaffirms that all people, no matter how disliked they are or how reprehensible their prior conduct, are entitled to Constitutional protection."

Gustafson says the real work of reforming the state's civil commitment law for sex offenders and the treatment program will now begin. He says bringing them into constitutional compliance will require the cooperation of the state's political leaders.

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11 a.m. CDT

A federal judge has ruled that Minnesota's sex offender treatment program is unconstitutional, but has deferred any immediate action to await further proceedings on a remedy.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank largely sided with the more than 700 residents who were civilly committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program after they completed their prison sentences.

Their lawyers argued during a nearly six-week bench trial in February and March that the program is unconstitutional because nobody has ever been fully discharged from it, even those thought to be at low risk of committing new crimes.

The state says it has improved the program, including moving more patients through treatment and perhaps toward provisional release.

Frank said proceedings to determine a remedy will begin in August.