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June 17, 2015

Federal district judge declares unconstitutional Minnesota sex offender civil commitment program

As reported in this AP piece, today brought a big (but not entirely unexpected) federal court ruling concerning constitutional challenges to Minnesota's civil commitment program for sex offenders. Here are the basics:

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 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. 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 currently 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. 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."

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. In a statement that was released Dayton said, "We will work with the Attorney General to defend Minnesota's law."

Dan Gustafson, the attorney who brought the class action suit on behalf of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program clients said he is not surprised by the judge's ruling. He said that he advised his clients to be patient because the remedies will take time to create and not all of the clients will be getting out.

The full 76-page ruling, in a case that still clearly is nowhere close to finished, is now available at this link.

June 17, 2015 at 02:59 PM | Permalink


When the state's own staff testifies that there are people being held at inappropriate levels of confinement (including being held at all) you have to wonder how the state thought there was any possibility of winning. Coupled with things like the testimony (again including from the staff) about the entire population starting over several times simply because a new director comes in and changed the program I would say it is pretty much inescapable that this program is little more than the state attempting to impose a life sentence where that was not the court ruling.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jun 17, 2015 6:10:35 PM

I litigated Eckehart v. Hensley at trial (not the Sup.Ct.level on the atty fees issue). I intend to read the briefs here in this case. If you lock some person up with the purported purpose of treating an illness (like sex perversion) then you have a duty to treat them. This case here sounds like life without parole and without a clear sentence. "Civil commitment" is an area of law destined to violate the civil rights of those persons committed.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Jun 17, 2015 9:13:56 PM

If the Federal District Court's ruling holds, then the dismantlement of civil commitment will not only save Minnesota tax payers millions that they can use for their own public schools, etc., it could head off any potential violent conflicts that might otherwise eventually erupt inside civil commitment institutions.

My big concern over the civil commitment program is that when the state keeps people beyond the expiration of their prison sentences, then where is the incentive for these inmates to behave toward staff and corrections officers? Those prisoners, in contrast, who have early release before their sentences' expiration and other carrots have an incentive to behave toward the staff so as not to jeopardize their early release or other rewards. Civilly committed inmates have no reward for good behavior while in civil commitment. In fact, it's a wonder that Moose Lake Civil Commitment Center did not erupt into any Attica-type uprising where inmates felt they no longer had anything to lose by venting their frustrations on staff and corrections officer. In the Attica uprising, at least eleven hostages lost their lives along with over thirty inmates.

Moose Lake's ability to avoid an Attica-like uprising thus far has been due only to good luck. Luck does not last forever, and Minnesota's politicians and law enforcement personnel would do well not to press it. That Moose Lake has thus far avoided any major blood bath is NOT because of civil commitment laws but DESPITE them!

If the Supreme Court or any other higher appellate court should over rule the Federal District Court's decision, I fear that Minnesotans might get complacent. Since the Civil Commitment Center in Moose Lake for its first twenty or so years has managed to avoid any major uprising, some smug politicians might think the place could last forever without any danger to staff and guards there.

We used to have this complacency towards ghettoes like Watts fifty years ago. When Watts and other locales finally exploded in ugly racial turmoil, we were taken totally by surprise.

Don't let Moose Lake totally take us by surprise the same way.

Posted by: william r. delzell | Jun 18, 2015 9:26:32 AM

william r. delzell,

This has been brought up before but the incentive is that they don't want to go back to prison. Bad as these facilities are there are worse places yet. I don't know about Minn. but I recall seeing articles about how at least some states are more than just eager to foist their civilly committed back onto the prison system.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jun 18, 2015 1:04:33 PM

Judging by some of the past comments that inmates at Moose Lake made about the place, they did not seem to see much difference between it and a run-of-the-mill maximum security prison. Or am I wrong in that assumption, according to your argument?

Posted by: william r. delzell | Jun 18, 2015 1:33:32 PM

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