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This March 28, 2017, photo shows the Pexton Building, surrounded by barbed wire fencing, at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in St. Peter. (AP file photo: Jim Mone)

Supreme Court won’t hear Minnesota sex offender case

The U.S. Supreme Court said Monday that it won’t review Minnesota’s civil commitment program for sex offenders, which had been challenged as unconstitutional for rarely releasing residents.

The program has faced legal challenges for years. An attorney for the system’s more than 700 residents argued the program, which allows people who are deemed sexually dangerous to be committed to a treatment facility indefinitely, amounts to a life sentence and only a handful of offenders have ever been released.

“In the absence of compulsion by the federal court, it seems unlikely that they are going to make any changes (to the program) because the political leadership in this state wants these folks locked up,” attorney Dan Gustafson said.

Gustafson said he’s disappointed in the decision, but also disappointed for the “administration of justice, because that suffered a setback today.”

Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper said reforms have been made throughout Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s term and that she expects more changes to come.

Dayton issued a statement after the Supreme Court order. He said, “This decision from the U.S. Supreme Court affirms that both the Minnesota Sex Offender Program and the State’s Civil Commitment Statute are constitutional. Importantly, this ruling does not mean that we abandon our ongoing reforms, to prioritize the safety and wellbeing of all Minnesotans. Rather, this ruling will allow us to continue the reforms we have begun, rather than operate under a federal directive.

“Last session, I proposed $18.4 million in new funding for facilities improvements and staffing to make additional improvements. I urge Legislative Leaders to join me in funding continued reforms to this program in the coming legislative session.”

The program currently has 720 residents. Even though the program is more than 20 years old, only eight people have been granted provisional discharge and are living in the community under supervision; only one person has been fully discharged.

Attorneys argued that the residents’ rights are violated because they have little chance for release; the “fatal flaw” in the system is that Minnesota doesn’t require a regular review of cases to see if individuals should continue to be committed.

Attorneys for the state argued that offenders can petition for release using a simple-to-obtain form. They said the program is necessary to protect citizens from dangerous sexual predators who would otherwise roam free.

In 2015, the program was declared unconstitutional by U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank, who ordered changes to the system to create a more achievable path to release. But a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision in January and found the program is constitutional.

The Supreme Court’s decision means the 8th Circuit’s ruling stands.

Gustafson said the federal courts have a history of intervening when states oppress a group of people, and the high court’s decision should concern people who believe the federal courts should protect the rights of unpopular citizens.

The Minnesota case has been closely watched by lawyers, government officials and activists in the 20 states with similar programs. While civilly committed offenders in California, Wisconsin, New Jersey and other states are allowed to re-enter society after completing treatment, Minnesota’s only full discharge didn’t come until August 2016. Minnesota also has the highest per capita lockup rate.

Dayton has pushed to make changes to the program while insisting it’s constitutional, and the state started releasing more offenders in the months after the lawsuit was first filed. Dayton has sought more than $20 million to build less-restrictive housing facilities and biennial evaluations to target more offenders for possible release.

But state lawmakers have shown little interest in addressing the controversial — and politically risky — topic while the legal battle progressed.

Piper, whose department runs the program, said she expects to continue to seek funding for less restrictive housing and other changes.

When asked whether it will be harder to get lawmakers to pay for more housing options without enforcement from the court, Piper said: “I expect them to do their job.”

Minnesota Lawyer staff contributed to this report.

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