- Associated Press - Sunday, June 14, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Minnesota lawmakers have been on notice for 16 months: Fix what a federal judge called a “draconian” and “clearly broken” sex offender treatment program or risk seeing it thrown out entirely.

The Minnesota Sex Offender Program’s day of reckoning comes Wednesday when U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank rules in a class-action lawsuit over the constitutionality of a program that has 715 offenders locked up for treatment. An adverse ruling could even force lawmakers into another special session.

“Depending on what the judge orders, it’s just something we’re going to have to face up to,” Gov. Mark Dayton said in an interview with The Associated Press.

That’s because another legislative session passed without action. A last-ditch proposal to explore “less-restrictive methods” sought by the Democratic governor’s administration - designed partly as a token message to Frank that his warnings had gotten through - was abruptly sidetracked late in private negotiations, according to documents obtained by The AP through an open records request.

In interviews, top Republicans labeled what appeared to be initial acceptance of the plan as “miscommunication.” Leading Democrats say it shows the House GOP is timid about confronting the sex offender issue.

“It’s tough politics. It probably writes pretty tough literature in the campaign,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said last week. “Somewhere you have to put campaigns behind you and think about governing.”

Sex offenders who are judged highly likely to commit new sex crimes are civilly committed to razor-wire enclosed facilities in Moose Lake or St. Peter for treatment after they finish their prison time. But plaintiffs argue that releases are so rare that the indefinite commitments amount to life sentences that are unconstitutional.

State lawyers argue the program is operating in accord with the best practices in the field.

The plan from Dayton’s administration would have supplied $560,000 to design and purchase land for two new residential treatment facilities for as many as 50 sex offenders on course for eventual release. It was a scaled-back version of Dayton’s initial $11 million bonding request, which would have financed the actual construction.

Even if the judge maintains the program, Dayton said Minnesota needs to think about supervised facilities away from Moose Lake and St. Peter for offenders moving ahead in their treatment. “There’s nowhere for them to go,” he said. “There are few transition sites.”

As four senior lawmakers on the Legislature’s Capital Investment committees met privately on June 3, two Dayton aides made the case that it would show the court Minnesota’s sex offender program was headed down a new course. It appeared to sway those legislators because the $560,000 was added to a spreadsheet detailing dozens of building projects that made a difficult cut. Wording that spelled out use of the money was included in a bill circulated internally among key lawmakers, too.

Dayton adviser Brennan Furness went so far as to send the governor an email after midnight listing the sex offender program money among “items of note.”

But less than 24 hours later the money was gone, prompting Dayton Chief of Staff Jaime Tincher to contact House GOP aides. “What’s the story there?” Tincher pressed in an email. Documents released to the AP don’t show a response.

Bakk, who was in favor of the approach, said he fielded a cellphone call from House Speaker Kurt Daudt insisting the money come out or the entire $373 million projects bill was in jeopardy. Dayton said Tincher received a similar explanation from Daudt’s aides in a phone call.

“It just seems like he wants to wait for the federal court to kind of put a gun to our heads, you might say,” Bakk said of his Republican counterpart.

Daudt denies it was dropped due to concerns over political fallout. He said in an interview the initial inclusion was a misunderstanding that he worked to clear up before a new bill was released to the public a day later. He said the funding request for alternative facilities is premature and deserves more vetting.

“This was some planning money but there was no place that defined where these facilities would be built,” Daudt said.

Daudt said he’s not convinced the current program will get struck down either.

House Health and Human Services Finance Chairman Matt Dean, a Republican whose committee oversees the sex offender program’s budget, scoffed at the notion a small measure will influence the outcome of a lengthy legal battle.

“It’s certainly not our job and wouldn’t be appropriate to interfere with the court proceedings or negotiate with the judge,” Dean said. “The judge is going to do whatever it is he is going to do.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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