MOOSE LAKE, Minn. — The PBS NewsHour was recently granted rare access to Minnesota’s Sex Offender Program in the rural town of Moose Lake, MN. It is one of two state-run facilities that house more than 700 sex offenders.
They’re all being held under what’s known as a “civil commitment law.” This type of law grants Minnesota courts the ability to deem someone an ongoing threat and, even after their sentences are served, keep them locked up indefinitely. Minnesota is one of 20 states across the nation that has a civil commitment program for sex offenders.
Minnesota has had civil commitment laws since the 1930’s, but for decades, they were primarily used for those determined to be mentally ill and dangerous. In 1995, the state revised the laws and expanded the use of civil commitment, opening the Moose Lake facility in order to provide “treatment to people who were committed as sexually dangerous persons or sexual psychopathic personalities.”
“The sex offenders in our program have some of the most horrible criminal histories and horrible crimes in their past of any sex offenders in our state,” said Emily Piper, the commissioner of Minnesota’s Department of Human Services, which oversees the state’s sex offender program. Piper added that only 4 percent of sex offenders in Minnesota are civilly committed.
The stated goal of the program is to give mental health treatment to the offenders, and release those who are deemed ready for life on the outside.
Yet in the last two decades, nobody has ever been fully released. More than 40 have died while in commitment. The oldest man here is 94, and several are older than 70.
There are also more than 60 men here who are locked up for crimes they committed as juveniles, meaning they do not have any offenses on their adult records.
This makes little sense to Elizabeth Letourneau, who runs the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at John Hopkins University and is one of the nation’s leading experts on juvenile sex offenders.
“Among youth who are adjudicated for a sexual offense — so they’ve been arrested, processed — 97 to 98 percent will not reoffend sexually,” Letourneau said.
On top of low recidivism rates, Letourneau also says Minnesota spends about $125,000 per year per offender. That’s triple the cost of what the state spends to lock someone up in regular prison.
In 2011, a class action lawsuit was brought against the state by a group of offenders in Minnesota’s program, arguing that they were not being provided meaningful treatment and instead were being held indefinitely without the normal protections of the criminal justice system. Last year, a federal district judge in Minnesota sided with them and deemed the program unconstitutional.
Minnesota has appealed that decision, and the 8th Circuit Court in St. Louis is expected to rule on it this fall.
However, in the meantime, the state of Minnesota said it has already begun making changes to its sex offender program and that five men have now been moved into less restrictive areas. Reviews are also being done on all offenders to determine any potential candidates for release.
Other states, including Missouri and Texas have also begun reviewing their sex offender programs.
On Tuesday’s NewsHour, we’ll have more on the history of civil commitment laws and why they were were originally developed for sex offenders.