Minnesota forms task force to review state’s civil commitment programs

This fall, a new 15-member panel met for the first time to review Minnesota's civil commitment programs. Now, the Sex Offender Civil Commitment Task Force has issued its initial report to Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson with recommendations on how to improve the state's civil commitment programs.

The need for a civil commitment task force

The task force was created after the state's civil commitment policies were challenged by a class-action lawsuit that claimed the state's policies were unconstitutional. Commissioner Jesson asked the task force to look into the civil commitment and referral process, current options for less restrictive alternatives to civil commitment and how to establish processes that would reduce the number of sex offenders in civil commitment.

The Sex Offender Civil Commitment Task Force is comprised of judges, public safety officials, experts in mental health and sexual rehabilitation and politicians from both the democratic and republican parties.

Minnesota leads the nation in the number of sex offenders it civilly commits. Currently, over 600 men and at least one woman live in secure treatment facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter run by the Minnesota Sex Offenders Program, or MSOP. The program was established nearly twenty years ago to treat the state's sex offenders who were deemed too dangerous to release into the community. Originally meant to be a transitional, MSOP has become a permanent solution for many sex offenders.

Currently, it costs the state $120,000 to treat a sex offender in civil commitment, while treatment in state prison costs Minnesotans $30,000.

The task force's report on civil commitment

So far, members of the task force have agreed that changes to the state's civil commitment program must be made, but do not have a clear picture of the shape these changes should take. In early December, the panel published a report that identified problems with Minnesota's civil commitment program and made several recommendations to Minnesota lawmakers.

The task force found that solving the problems within Minnesota's commitment program is complex. For example, separate solutions must be created for those currently living in civil commitment facilities and those still in prison facing civil commitment in the future. The panel found the largest impediments to fixing Minnesota's civil commitment problems are funding and lack of facilities that allow for short-term treatment.

Current law allows courts to assign a less restrictive alternative to long-term civil commitment to convicted sex offenders if the alternative meets the treatment needs of the offender and public safety requirements. However, this alternative is almost never used since the state lacks these types of programs and facilities. The task force found this leads to an "all or nothing" situation, in which offenders are either permanently stuck in an expensive secure treatment facility or released without supervision into the community.

The task force made several recommendations to lawmakers after describing the current state of civil commitment in Minnesota. It asked the state to provide funding for less secure treatment facilities, group homes and outpatient treatment programs. It also recommended the careful development of these less restrictive alternatives to address public safety concerns. Lastly, the panel recommended that less restrictive alternatives to civil commitment facilities be established all over the state, not in a few cities.

While the task force will continue its work throughout 2013, it is already clear that civil commitment in Minnesota needs reform. Current policy essentially incarcerates offenders in secure treatment facilities indefinitely after they have already served their sentences in prison. If you have been accused of a sex offense and believe the state may consider you a candidate for civil commitment, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney.