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Minnesota’s Sex Offender Facilities Suspiciously Prison-like

— September 28, 2017

Minnesota’s Sex Offender Facilities Suspiciously Prison-like

The Supreme Court is currently determining whether to hear a case that challenges the Minnesota “civil commitment” program which holds people convicted of sex crimes long after their sentences in treatment facilities.  There are approximately 20 such programs in the United States.  These programs used to look much like hospitals for the mentally disabled.  Patients were able to bring personal items from home, including computers, game consoles or televisions, and could leave with a staff escort.  Visiting hours are eight hours per day, and they can even cook in the facility.  Then, once completing treatment, patients would be released.

By 2012, however, the two Minnesota program locations appeared to be no different from prisons.  They were surrounded by wire and contained two-man cells with bunk beds.  The patients were forced to wear handcuffs and leg irons, and visits were limited.  Electronics were no longer allowed, and patients were subjected to random strip searches.

As of January of this year, only one person has ever been fully discharged.  At his hearing, the man indicated he believed “the only way to get out is to die.”  Judge Donovan Frank responded, “There is an emotional climate of despair among the facilities’ residents.”  He ruled the laws governing the Minnesota facilities were unconstitutional in 2015.  However, his judgment was overruled by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which led to the current situation.

Minnesota's Sex Offender Facilities Suspiciously Prison-like
Image Courtesy of Cole Patrick

Of course, the Supreme Court may decline to hear the case which claims the way in which the Minnesota facilities are currently being operated opposes constitutional rights ensuring an individual cannot be denied “life, liberty, or property, without due process of the law.”  Depending on the outcome, the court’s decision could also spark changes to the restrictions currently imposed on sex offenders who are not imprisoned but have strict limitations on where they can work, live and travel.

This case “represent(s) a willingness of courts to examine these laws by looking through and behind the face of the laws, and examine how they are being implemented,” said Eric Janus, professor of law in Minneapolis.  “After 20 years we can’t rely on the fact that the sign on the front door says ‘treatment center’ and not ‘prison.’”  He argues the state needs to defend why it holds people beyond what the criminal courts order. “If for no other reason than to protect the moral legitimacy of the criminal justice system, the boundaries of this ‘alternate justice system’ must be vigilantly patrolled.”

The Cato Institute and Reason Foundations have chimed in on the debate, filing briefs stating “sex-offender laws have bored the hole in the nation’s constitutional fabric.”

Fifteen years ago, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote “the rate of recidivism of untreated offenders has been estimated to be as high as 80 percent” and this percentage is “frightening and high.”  However, these statistics were presented by a counselor who did not do any research to back up his numbers and has since said he is “appalled” that his statements have been used in so many court cases.  In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice performed its own study and found that of all those released after committing sex crimes in 1994, only 5.3 percent reoffended within three years.

David Prescott, former president of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers pointed out that some states, including New York and Wisconsin, have chosen to create civil commitment programs that do let people out, unlike Minnesota’s. “There are some very dangerous people out there,” said Prescott. “We have to find the balance of healthy lives and safe communities, and I don’t believe we’re doing a very good job.”


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