- Associated Press - Friday, February 13, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Limited funding has kept state officials from making broad changes to Minnesota’s sex offender treatment program, the state’s human services commissioner testified Friday in a federal lawsuit over the program’s constitutionality.

Attorneys for more than 700 people civilly committed under the program say it’s unconstitutional because release is nearly impossible. They have argued the program is understaffed and ineffective in rehabilitating sex offenders.

Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said Friday that she’s made some improvements to the program in her four years on the job, including moving more patients through treatment to the point where they can petition for provisional release.

But Jesson said her department would need more funding for bigger adjustments, like contracting with the private sector to provide less-restrictive facilities for some patients.

Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed about $6.8 million in additional state spending over the next two years to evaluate patients more often and move some of them to facilities less restrictive than the program’s Moose Lake and St. Peter locations.

The Minnesota Sex Offender Program currently houses about 720 men and one woman. Nobody has been fully released from the program in its 21-year history, adding to its cost.

Court-appointed experts, a task force and the Office of the Legislative Auditor have all suggested tweaks to the program in the past four years. U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank, who’s presiding over the trial, has called the program “draconian” and “clearly broken” in pretrial rulings.

Jesson said she found the program “difficult” and wanted to change its direction when she began the commissioner’s job in 2011. She had staff take preliminary steps to identify about 40 patients who may have been eligible to move to facilities other than the ones in Moose Lake and St. Peter.

The department later planned to move about a dozen patients to a facility in Cambridge. But Jesson said that plan dissolved partly in the face of fierce opposition from residents.

“The community reaction was much more than we’d expected,” Jesson said.

The trial is expected to last several weeks.

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