Locked up...forever?

January 3, 2014
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In Minnesota there are nearly 700 people imprisoned under the Minnesota Sexual Offenders program, at a prison-like treatment facility because they have been deemed "sexual psychopathic" or "sexually dangerous". Individuals are sent to the MSOP program because after a sex offender completes his or her prison sentence, the state can ask for a hearing to decide whether this "civil commitment" is necessary because the offender is still dangerous. The hearings that determine whether these individuals are dangerous are civil, not criminal, so the state does not have to prove as much as in a criminal case to commit people. The state argues that civil commitment is meant to protect the community from future sex crimes not punish those convicted for past crimes. Sex offenders committed in these hearings may be held forever.

While the courts have said that the MSOP may be constitutional, the program is still riddled with problems. As of today, only one sex offender has been released from MSOP. Even though the state's argument rests completely on the fact that people are not committed as a punishment, the "treatment" has had only one "success" in nearly twenty years. These programs are incredibly costly; taxpayers spend $120,000 (three times what the state spends to incarcerate a person) a year per patient, but get very little results for the huge costs. In 2014 the state estimates it will spend almost 77 million dollars and that number grows every year as we keep adding more people. Minnesota has committed more people than any other state, and we are continuing to commit people at the highest rate. Texas, a state with a huge prison population, has ZERO people in an inpatient secure facility. Instead, Texas keeps people in halfway houses and provides outpatient treatment.

The ACLU-MN believes that implementation of the MSOP violates the Constitution. The power of the government to deprive a person of liberty in order to punish that person for committing a crime is strictly controlled by the Constitution. The MSOP denies offenders these protections by pretending that it is a civil rather than criminal sentence. Offenders are denied their liberty yet the courts do not recognize their constitutional rights and do not demand that the state prove as much as it would have to normally to imprison someone for committing a crime. The ACLU warns that courts should be extremely wary of opening the door to such unregulated deprivation of liberty.

The ACLU does not believe that all the individuals who are imprisoned through this program should be immediately released. Instead, reforms should be made to the program that will protect their constitutional rights while at the same time reducing costs to the state and keeping everyone safe. This would ensure the program is actually a civil commitment program, not a criminal punishment. There are at least three ways this can be done:

  1. The Government must offer an intermediate option. As it stands, the only two choices are to lock up an offender in a prison-like facility or let them completely free. Minnesota needs intermediate facilities such as halfway houses. States such as Texas use these facilities to implement a more efficient and much cheaper program.
  2. The Government must take real steps to improve treatment at MSOP. Minnesota has not completely treated a single individual. Other states have civil commitment schemes that result in real treatment, including safely releasing civilly committed individuals back into the community.
  3. These determinations should, as the Office of the Legislative Auditor suggested in its report, be made by an independent panel of retired judges. These judges are not sitting for re-election and are more likely to take an honest and accurate approach to an unpopular cause such as the constitutional rights of sex offenders.

A number of patients of these programs recently sued the State of Minnesota arguing their rights have been violated. The ACLU submitted a brief in the case that discusses the problem it sees with the MSOP.

Contributed by Kelly Molloy, legal intern for the ACLU-MN.