Minnesota sex offender commitment program ruled unconstitutional

By David Bailey

MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - A federal judge on Wednesday ruled Minnesota's sex offender treatment program unconstitutional and ordered a hearing into the system that has not unconditionally released anyone in 20 years and holds more than 700 people in treatment facilities.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank did not order anyone immediately released, but urged the governor, state legislative leaders and others to attend a pre-hearing conference in August to discuss changes to protect public safety and ensure people's rights.

"The overwhelming evidence at trial established that Minnesota's civil commitment scheme is a punitive system that segregates and indefinitely detains a class of potentially dangerous individuals without the safe guards of the criminal justice system," Frank wrote in his decision.

Under civil commitments, offenders who have served their prison terms are held in state facilities until completing their treatment.

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton said the state believed the program was constitutional and would defend the law.

"As the federal judge has not ordered any releases, there will be no immediate changes to this program as a result of this ruling," Dayton, a Democrat, said in a statement.

Fourteen detainees sued over the program, started in 1994, which allows a judge to order civil commitment for treatment after a prison sentence if a person is found to be sexually dangerous or to have a sexually psychopathic personality.

The state said at the start of the program that treatment might last 32 months for model patients, but only three people had received provisional discharges and no one had been released fully, Frank said.

"The Constitution protects individual rights even when they are unpopular," Frank wrote.

He said some truly dangerous offenders should not be released but that others should have been released at least provisionally some time ago with appropriate supervision.

Proposals to change the program and civil commitment laws failed in recent legislative sessions.

Dan Gustafson, lead attorney for the detainees who brought the lawsuit, said the evidence was overwhelming that the civil commitment law and the way it is applied were unconstitutional.

"This order highlights the complete failure of the political system in Minnesota with respect to these important issues but more importantly, it reaffirms that all people, no matter how disliked they are or how reprehensible their prior conduct, are entitled to Constitutional protection," Gustafson said in a statement.

(Reporting by David Bailey; Editing by Peter Cooney)