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Judge in sex offender case warns of ‘forceful solution’

Judge Donovan Frank

Judge Donovan Frank

A federal judge who ruled that Minnesota’s sex offender program is unconstitutional warned state leaders last week that he may resort to a “more forceful solution” if they don’t prove willing to fix the program on their own.

U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank issued his strongly worded order two days after a private hearing with top officials about changing the confinement program. As part of Wednesday’s order, he scheduled a public court hearing on Sept. 30 and asked parties to the legal case to come with remedy proposals.

“Recognizing the history of the state’s failure to meet minimum constitutional requirements, as well as the continuing injury and harm resulting from serious violations, the court notes that, at some point, if the state proves unwilling or incapable of remedying the constitutional violations, to which insufficient funding is not a defense, that failure may demand a more forceful solution,” Frank wrote.

More than 700 offenders deemed sexually dangerous are being held indefinitely in secure treatment facilities. Frank ruled in June in a class-action lawsuit that the program is flawed, but stopped short of ordering that offenders be let loose or requiring specific changes, hoping the decision would spur settlement discussions.

Lawmakers, including Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, maintain the program is legal and are waiting for an opportunity to appeal. Continued resistance, Frank wrote Wednesday, could put the program and public safety at risk.

Dayton offered a couple of proposals Monday, including regular evaluations of sex offenders in the program and less-restrictive settings for those who are advancing in treatment, have cognitive limitations or are elderly. He said the changes could add $20 million per year in program costs and would require legislative signoff.

The governor’s spokesman, Matt Swenson, said Wednesday that Dayton would review the court’s order with administration officials and legislative leaders after he returned home from his trade mission to Mexico.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, the Capitol’s top Republican, remained resolute Wednesday in his belief that the program is constitutional. He previously indicated that lawmakers might wait until Frank imposes an action plan before moving ahead.

“As we work through this process, our number one priority has been and will continue to be protecting the public,” he said in a statement.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, a Democrat, said it is clear Frank is losing patience with political inaction.

“I take judicial rulings that declare a program unconstitutional seriously. I’m disappointed we weren’t able to act before now,” Bakk said, adding the issue is tough politically, but “the words when we get sworn in are that we agree to abide by the Constitution.”

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