Gov. Mark Dayton wants to suspend all provisional releases of Minnesota sex offenders until lawmakers can address legal and constitutional issues with the state’s civil commitment program.
In a Wednesday letter to Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, Dayton ordered her to suspend any provisional releases from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program until a special task force and legislators can address concerns about the constitutionality of potentially locking up offenders for life. There are currently nearly 700 sex offenders in the program, and only one person has ever been released by the state. A federal judge has told state officials that indeterminate sentencing is unconstitutional, but a proposal to tackle the issue failed to make it to Dayton’s desk last session.
The catalyst for the move is Thomas Duvall, a 57-year-old convicted rapist who recently petitioned for conditional release. The Dayton administration did not fight his petition, a move was met with an appeal from DFL Attorney General Lori Swanson, who wanted to hold a trial to evaluate Duvall’s readiness for release. Duvall was convicted three times of molesting teenage girls and has been in civil commitment treatment since 1991.
The issue quickly became a “political circus,” Dayton said. GOP Rep. Kurt Zellers, who is angling to challenge Dayton for the governor’s office next fall, wrote a letter and held a Capitol news conference criticizing the governor for considering Duvall’s release. In the letter, Zellers said Duvall’s release would be “outrageous, offensive and an affront to public safety.”
“The political partisanship made it clear this was going to be an issue seized upon and abused,” Dayton said at a Wednesday news conference. “We just can’t proceed in that kind of environment.”
But Dayton acknowledged that asking legislators to take on the issue is also fraught with political problems, especially ahead of an election year. “Were it not an election year, would it be easier to accomplish this?” Dayton said. “Yes.”
Jesson said Duvall’s appeal will still move ahead, but plans to move several sex offenders to a different supervised facility in Cambridge has stalled. That news was met with a terse but relieved statement from GOP Rep. Brian Johnson, who represents the area.
“Governor Dayton’s directive to Commissioner Jesson to suspend the dangerous transfer of sexual offenders to less secure facilities like the one in Cambridge is welcome news,” Johnson said, adding that Dayton didn’t consult with him ahead of the proposed transfers. “I would kindly remind the governor that as representatives of the people, lawmakers ought to be more thoroughly consulted on issues like this program in the future.”
Zellers again used the news to criticized Dayton. “Dayton has failed to provide Minnesota with the leadership our state deserves,” Zellers said in a statement. “He continues to recklessly disregard the safety of Minnesotans by supporting the release of serial rapist Thomas Duvall.”
House Speaker Paul Thissen said he has asked GOP Reps. Tara Mack, Apple Valley, and Nick Zerwas, Elk River, to take the lead on drafting a bill to deal with the issues with civil commitment next session. “This is about public safety and should not be an issue of politics or campaigns,” Thissen said in a statement.
The treatment program is the subject of a class action lawsuit by people who say they have little chance to go free even if they successfully participate in treatment. Convicted sex offender Clarence Opheim became the first and only person to ever be released from the program in 2012.
The 15-member Sex Offender Civil Commitment Advisory Task Force is expected to deliver its recommendations for fixing the program by Dec. 1.