- Associated Press - Monday, February 9, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Sex offenders locked up in Minnesota’s civil commitment program have almost no chance of getting released and it should be declared unconstitutional, an attorney representing more than 700 participants told a federal judge on Monday.

“Dozens, perhaps hundreds” of those people would qualify for release to less restrictive settings if officials with the Minnesota Sex Offender Program were doing an adequate job of periodically evaluating the offenders sent to the secure treatment program after completing their prison sentences, attorney Dan Gustafson said.

“The door swings only one way,” Gustafson said in his opening statement. “It’s easy to get in. It’s impossible to get out.”

The program, which includes prison-like facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter, houses about 720 men and one woman. In the program’s 21-year history, nobody has been fully released. Two men are on provisional discharges under intense supervision.

Deputy Minnesota Attorney General Nathan Brennaman told U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank that the state has a legitimate interest in protecting its citizens from dangerous sex offenders and the program is constitutional.

“This program not only does some things well, but does some things better that any sex offender treatment program in the country,” Brennaman said.

Frank has already said in pretrial rulings that the program is “clearly broken” and “draconian.” If he agrees that it is unconstitutional, he may order changes. The trial is expected to last several weeks.

Gustafson said the class-action lawsuit isn’t about whether any specific person should be released. But he argued that the program is so “cumbersome, understaffed, undertrained, unsupported and ineffective” that offenders feel it’s pointless.

While the onus is on patients to start the process of seeking release, Brennaman said taking that step is easy.

“The petition form can be completed in two seconds by checking a box and signing your name,” he said. That starts a long review by program staff and the courts, which he said ensures due process. He suggested that the number of people who qualify for release is small simply because so many of them are dangerous.

“The fact is, these individuals are difficult to treat,” he said.

Deborah McCulloch, head of Wisconsin’s Sexually Violent Persons treatment program, testified on how different states approach the problem.

McCulloch, who was on a team of four court-appointed experts who conducted an extensive review of Minnesota’s program, said Wisconsin’s currently houses 362 patients - all men - including 40 who are being detained pending completion of their civil commitment proceedings. She said 118 people have been fully released since the program began in 1994.

Her panel recommended in November that MSOP staffers begin creating plans to discharge clients when they’re first admitted, and to periodically evaluate them to ensure they still need confinement. The experts said there should be clear standards for discharging clients, and that Minnesota should change its civil commitment statute to ensure it’s used only for the most dangerous sex offenders.

McCulloch testified that panel members found a pervasive atmosphere of “hopelessness and helplessness” among patients and even staff when they toured the Moose Lake facility.

“They’re (patients) just biding their time until somebody makes something happen,” she said.

McCulloch contrasted that feeling of futility with what she sees in Wisconsin.

“I work in a program with a lot of releases,” she said. “Because clients see a lot of clients leaving, it gives them hope that, ‘if I do X, Y and Z, I can get out the door,’” she said.

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