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US high court leaves Minnesota sex offender program running

The Minnesota Sex Offender Program facility at Moose Lake, Minn. (Forum News Service file photo)

ST. PAUL—Minnesota can keep its program that indefinitely locks up sex offenders after they finish serving prison terms.

The U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday, Oct. 2, that it will not consider a case brought by patients of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, who claimed the state cannot keep them in a prison-like setting. That means the state program is constitutional and may continue.

Still, state officials said that they will continue to find ways to release sex offenders from the program after years of no releases.

"Importantly, this ruling does not mean that we abandon our ongoing reforms, to prioritize the safety and wellbeing of all Minnesotans," Gov. Mark Dayton aid. "Rather, this ruling will allow us to continue the reforms we have begun, rather than operate under a federal directive."

State officials had feared that a federal judge would take control of the state treatment program, potentially running up large expenses. But the governor and legislators had not agreed on any major reforms to avoid federal involvement.

Supreme Court judges make no comment when they reject a case, giving no hint as to why they turned down the case.

Monday's announcement means a federal appeals court ruling governs the issue. The appeals decision overturned a lower court decision that found the sex offender program unconstitutional. The appeals ruling removed requirements for immediate changes the lower court was prepared to order.

State Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper said she is happy the high court allowed the appeals ruling to stand after long arguing that the program is constitutional.

Under Dayton, work has begun to release offenders.

There are 724 people in the program, Piper said, with eight now under supervision in community settings and state officials looking for places to move another six. One person has been fully discharged in the program's history.

Most of the sex offenders, considered the worst of the worst, are in Moose Lake and St. Peter state hospitals where, until some were moved to community group homes, all of the offenders were held.

Piper said that even with the program being declared constitutional, her department has a problem finding housing around the state for the patients. Up to 90 communities have banned them, she said.

"The need for housing is there," Piper said. "I want it to be safe, I want it to be secure."

Patients in the sex offender program usually are committed after their prison terms end.

County prosecutors are notified when a person, usually a man, convicted of a serious sex crime nears the end of his sentence. The prosecutor decides whether to ask a judge to indefinitely commit him to the state sex offender program.

If the person is committed, there has been little hope for release.

When legal challenges began years ago, talk about finding a way to release them began.

The lawsuit patients brought, but the high court rejected, claims that keeping them without a chance for release was unconstitutional.

While the sex offender program has been around more than two decades, it gained attention in 2003 when Dru Sjodin disappeared from a Grand Forks, N.D., mall and Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. of Crookston, Minn., was charged. Her body was found the next spring near Crookston.

Six months before the college student disappeared, Rodriguez had been released from a Minnesota prison, but prosecutors did not ask a judge to commit him.

After the Sjodin incident, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Attorney General Mike Hatch began a drive to commit more sex offenders to the treatment program. Commitments to the program soared.

Also, legislators, Pawlenty and Dayton worked to tighten penalties for sex offenders.

Even with the Monday court decision, sex offenders still could take the issue to state courts. And, Piper said, a federal court judge still must make some relatively minor decisions about the lawsuit.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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