GOP Reps. Brian Johnson and Nick Zerwas are raising concerns about plans to transfer six civilly committed sex offenders to a facility in Cambridge. In a letter to Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, the legislators questioned whether the plan will endanger the public.
“One major concern has been the lack of transparency in the process thus far,” reads the letter from Johnson, of Cambridge, and Zerwas, of Elk River. “Prior to the release of your letter, we are unaware of any meetings or advance communications with local officials, community leaders, or citizens in Cambridge on this important public safety issue. Rather, like some other important issues at DHS lately, there is a veil of secrecy and a lack of information.”
The missive is in response to a plan announced by DHS earlier this month to transfer six developmentally disabled sex offenders to the Cambridge facility. In addition, petitions are being prepared on another six clients that DHS officials believes can be treated in a less-restrictive setting. The plan is the first tangible result of efforts to create less-restrictive alternatives to prison-like facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter for individuals involuntarily enrolled in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).
“Using the Cambridge site for MSOP is a good first step in developing alternative settings in a way that balances our dual mission to provide effective treatment while ensuring public safety,” Jesson wrote in a letter to House Speaker Paul Thissen and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk on Sept. 12. “While we have developed the basic framework for this plan, much work remains to be done before it can be finalized and implemented. We will meet with employees, labor representatives, local officials, community members and others to ensure that all voices are heard and that we create the best possible plan.”
On that same day, Jesson sent a similar letter to Cambridge Mayor Marlys Palmer and city administrator Lynda Woulfe explaining the plan for transferring six MSOP clients to the facility. “We expect the Cambridge site to be one of several that will form a continuum of care to better meet the range of needs among this population,” Jesson wrote.
In addition, last week DHS officials, including deputy commissioner Anne Barry, held two community meetings in Cambridge to talk about the plan. This coming Tuesday there are two additional meetings scheduled.
Zerwas questions the sincerity of those gatherings given that a plan is already moving forward. “It’s disingenuous after the fact to say, ‘Yes, we talked to them,'” Zerwas said. “Yes, you talked to them, but the decision was already made.”
The changes are being spurred in part by a class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court questioning the constitutionality of the civil commitment program, which has nearly 700 enrollees. Just one individual has so far been provisionally discharged from the treatment program over the last two decades.
The lawsuit has resulted in the creation of a task force, chaired by former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, to recommend changes to the MSOP. Legislation based in part on that body’s work was introduced during the last legislative session. It was passed with bipartisan support in the Senate, but stalled out in the House. House DFLers decided not to bring the bill up for a floor vote because Republicans wouldn’t commit to providing any support for the politically volatile legislation.
Zerwas argues that any significant changes to the MSOP should be made legislatively. He wants to see a legislative hearing on the plan to move the sex offenders to the Cambridge facility.
“I fully believe that the program is constitutional,” Zerwas said. “If there needs to be changes or modifications to the MSOP program, it should be done in a public format with as much transparency as possible.”
Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, chair of the Health and Human Services Policy Committee, points out that nobody has asked her to hold a hearing on the matter and takes issue with some of the language used by Zerwas and Johnson in their letter.
“There’s a lot of language in it that show that they either don’t understand what we’re trying to do or they’re purposefully trying to sabotage it,” Liebling said. “The language in the letter’s very inflammatory and misrepresents the legislation from last year and misrepresents what [DHS is] trying to do.”
Liebling doesn’t think the controversy bodes well for making legislative changes to the MSOP going forward. “It makes me feel very discouraged about the possibility of getting real work done by the minority and real buy in no matter what kind of information we give them,” she said.