- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 16, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - A federal judge who has already called Minnesota’s sex offender treatment program “clearly broken” is scheduled to rule on it Wednesday, a decision that could lead to freedom eventually for many residents who said they had little hope of ever being released.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank wrote even before hearing testimony in February and March that the Minnesota Sex Offender Program was “draconian” and that “the interests of justice require substantial changes” to it. More than 700 offenders were indefinitely committed to its secure facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter after they completed their prison sentences.

The class-action lawsuit argues that the program is unconstitutionally punitive because nobody has ever been fully discharged from it, even those who could safely be freed or at least transferred to less-restrictive facilities. The state says the program meets all constitutional requirements, and that it has made changes to improve it.

Frank isn’t expected to shut the program down, and may order further proceedings to come up with specific remedies - but his ruling could give many of its residents a realistic chance of getting out relatively soon.

“The key fact that overwhelms all others is that ‘no one ever gets out,’” lawyers for the offenders wrote in their closing brief.

Minnesota countered that the program “accords with the best practices in the field” and said rewriting the law is a matter for the Legislature, not the court.

Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson testified that her agency has moved more patients through treatment to better position them for petitioning for provisional release. But she said her department would need more funding to make bigger changes.

The potential candidates for release relatively soon include an all-time high of 67 people who have advanced to the final phase of treatment within the program.

A panel of court-appointed experts testified during the bench trial that many of the offenders don’t pose much risk of reoffending, don’t meet the statutory requirements for continued commitment, or could safely be released into less-restrictive community treatment settings. State officials including Jannine Hebert, the program’s executive clinical director, partially conceded some of those points during the trial.

The program includes 67 people, not all the same as the final treatment phase group, who were committed solely for offenses they committed as juveniles. The experts testified that studies show the risk of them reoffending is low. Some 78 are over age 65, including one who’s 93, and some of them are have infirmities such as Parkinson’s disease that have left them physically unlikely to reoffend.

Frank signaled in his pretrial rulings that he was likely to find “some degree of unconstitutionality with the program” assuming the plaintiffs proved their case, said Eric Janus, president and dean of the William Mitchell College of Law. There’s a range of solutions the judge ultimately could order, Janus said, such as giving the state a deadline to fix the problems he identifies, ordering specific changes, or appointing a special master or receiver to take over the program.

Only three people have ever been provisionally discharged in the program’s more than 20 years. One returned after violating the conditions of his release and died in the program. Two are now in community-based programs under intense supervision.

In contrast, neighboring Wisconsin’s program has fully discharged 118 offenders since 1994.

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