The cost of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program has grown dramatically in recent years. In 2004 the program for detaining the state’s most dangerous sex offenders cost just $20.4 million. By 2012 that figure is projected to rise above $70 million.
The reason for this growth isn’t difficult to pinpoint. Since 2003 the number of individuals involuntarily committed to state facilities at Moose Lake and St. Peter has quadrupled. At the start of July there were 625 men enrolled in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).
Per diem costs for the program have actually dropped steadily in recent years, from $387 per enrollee in 2007 to $328 in the current fiscal year. But the program still costs the state roughly three times as much as it does to keep an individual in state prison.
The growth in enrollment isn’t expected to slow any time soon, especially considering that no individual involuntarily committed to the program has been successfully rehabilitated and released. The Minnesota Department of Human Services, which runs the program, projects that the population of civilly committed sex offenders will double again in the next decade.
However, the budget signed into law last month significantly changes who is responsible for funding the program. Previously the state picked up 90 percent of the tab, with the county that initiated civil commitment proceedings responsible for just 10 percent of the cost. As of Aug. 1, counties will assume 25 percent of the funding for all new commitments. In the current budget cycle the change is projected to save the state roughly $8 million.
But the state’s savings are the counties’ new costs. Hennepin County, for instance, currently has 132 civilly committed sex offenders, the largest population of any county in the state. In recent years, two to four individuals have been added to that population each year. The county has budgeted $100,000 in additional costs for 2012, but that price tag will increase annually as more individuals come on-line at the higher payment ratio.
“It’s your classic unfunded mandate, and I think the concern is that it will continue to grow over time,” said Patricia Coldwell, health and human services policy analyst for the Association of Minnesota Counties.
Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, chairman of the Health and Human Services Finance Committee, portrays the change as a needed reform to a troubled system. He points to a report by the Office of the Legislative Auditor released in March that found widespread discrepancies across the state in how the program is implemented. For instance, the number of commitments per capita in the 3rd Judicial District, which covers 11 counties in the southeastern corner of the state, was 19.5 per 100,000 residents. In the neighboring 1st Judicial District, by contrast, it was only 6.5 per 100,000 residents.
Abeler hopes that the higher cost for counties will spur them to thoroughly scrutinize how they are handling civil commitments for sex offenders. “This is one of the biggest unresolved areas of our state budget both in terms of policy and in terms of cost,” said Abeler, who was the lead sponsor of the funding change. “I think the whole system is ripe for dialogue.”
Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, chairman of the Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee, agrees that counties should have more “skin in the game.” “If they know what they’re doing is costing a lot of money, why is one county loading it up and others not?” Cornish asked. “Maybe this will make them think a long time before they just automatically send someone up to take the safe way.”
But DFL legislators and many local officials scoff at the suggestion that the change is anything but a budget-balancing maneuver that simply pushes the cost down to the local level. “It’s the same as so many proposals that have been made this last session, where it’s just pushing what is the state’s responsibility down to the locals,” said Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, a longtime critic of the civil commitment program. “It’s just pushing it down, and there’s going to be significant tax increases at the local level.”
Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster disputes the notion that the sex offender civil commitment process plays out differently across the state. He also dismisses the notion that the funding change might cause counties to alter how they handle such cases. “That’s just preposterous,” Beaumaster said. “You’re either a sexual psychopath or you’re not. We don’t ask how much it will cost.”
Beaumaster further wonders if the cost-sharing practice will eventually be extended to other state services. “I’m waiting for it to take off to [the Department of Corrections] too, when we commit people to our state prison system,” he said. “This is a state facility we’re funding with local property taxes.”
It’s too early to tell exactly how the change in funding will play out at the local level. But there is some initial evidence that it’s causing local officials to re-evaluate how they implement the civil commitment process for sex offenders. Olmsted County has long been considered an innovator in seeking alternatives to involuntary commitment for chronic sex offenders — which amounts to a de facto life sentence. In a handful of cases, prosecutors have agreed to allow candidates for commitment to instead enroll in the state’s only in-patient sex offender treatment program, Minneapolis-based Alpha Human Services. The sex offenders continue to have the threat of civil commitment hanging over their heads while undergoing therapy.
Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem says that discussions are now under way to develop some kind of semi-secure midpoint between what Alpha offers and the full lockdown of civil commitment. “We need to look at, is there another alternative?” Ostrem said. “I think we have to [ask that question] as stewards of the public money.”
But that doesn’t mean that he’s pleased with the decision to pass on greater costs to the counties. He doesn’t buy the reform rhetoric either, noting that the state has faced chronic budget deficits in recent years. “A large part of resolving the budget was not the state fixing their problems,” Ostrem noted. “It was just passing the buck to somebody else.”