Case Challenging the Constitutionality of Minnesota’s Sex Offender Program Allowed to Proceed

After a recent federal appeals court ruling, a protracted case arguing the unconstitutionality of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program will move forward. The decision comes nearly 10 years after the case’s initial filing and following a recent two-week hunger strike by detainees at one of the program’s centers protesting their treatment. Convicted sex offenders committed to the program by the courts suggest MSOP prolongs their punishments and denies them certain basic safeguards and rights.

Civil Rights and Civil Commitment to MSOP

A ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit three-judge panel will send a lawsuit by sex offenders committed to MSOP back to the federal district court. The case against the state requests a review of the constitutionality of Minnesota’s treatment of sex offenders on the basis that MSOP does not provide detainees with adequate treatment and subjects them to improper punishment. The plaintiffs suggest they have been indefinitely confined in the program’s prison-like treatment centers with no clear path toward full reintegration into the community and that the program has deprived them of access to the courts and other rights afforded to them in the criminal justice system.

In 2015, a U.S. district judge in St. Paul found MSOP was punitive in nature, detaining people in restrictive community settings. On these grounds, the judge declared the program unconstitutional. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis overturned that ruling in 2017. The court stated the detainees’ attorneys failed to prove the egregiousness of the state’s actions. The detainees’ attorneys challenged that decision, sending the case before the panel. Based on the recent panel ruling, the federal district court will evaluate whether the program’s conditions qualify as punitive and violate detainees’ rights.

Court-Ordered Sex Offender Treatment

Comprised of three phases aimed at preparing program clients to safely and successfully reenter the community after a sex offense conviction, MSOP is a comprehensive sex offender treatment program. After serving their prison sentences, the courts may see fit to civilly commit people whom judges determine are sexually dangerous or have a sexual psychopathic personality to the program. While participating in the program, staff observe and monitor all aspects of detainees’ daily lives.

The program boasts offering group therapy, as well as treatment and rehabilitative services including education programming, vocational programming, therapeutic recreation, and volunteer opportunities. Those committed to MSOP may progress between the program’s two centers, to community preparation services, and finally back into the community as they address their dynamic risk factors and demonstrate meaningful changes.

Community Reintegration After the Program

Before people civilly committed to MSOP by the court may reintegrate into society, they must receive a discharge from the program. To obtain a discharge from commitment, program clients must petition the Minnesota Supreme Commitment Appeal Panel. The panel will consider factors such as the petitioner’s treatment needs and progress, the need to continue treatment, and the impact of allowing the petitioner to return to the community on public safety. In determining whether to grant a discharge request, public safety is a primary concern.

Transitioning out of the program and back into society involves a rigorous reintegration process. MSOP’s reintegration process includes ongoing sex offender treatment and increasing liberties, so program detainees may safely practice applying their treatment skills while continuing the deinstitutionalization process and adjusting to life back in society. While in CPS, program detainees must wear GPS-locator ankle bracelets.

MSOP Success, or Lack Thereof

While state officials claim MSOP has a clear pathway to discharge, the actual number of people who have progressed through the program may tell a different story. In the program’s 27-year history, only 14 total people have received full discharges and the ability to live in the community without MSOP oversight. 48 people have received provisional discharges and 28 people who previously received provisional discharges from the program currently live in the community with MSOP supervision and monitoring. Less than 10 people who have received provisional discharges still await placement in the community. When courts civilly commit convicted sex offenders to MSOP, they do not have to provide a timeframe or specify benchmarks the program client must meet to receive a discharge.

As of April 1, 2021, 743 people were committed to MSOP treatment facilities. Many have spent years in the program with little or no progress toward returning to society. Critics of MSOP suggest this effectually turns the program into a life sentence for convicted sex offenders who have served their sentences and paid their debts to society. A successful outcome to the detainees’ claims may lead to pressure to reform MSOP to better serve both the detainees committed to program centers and the community at large.

Max Keller has won countless jury trial cases involving misdemeanors and felonies, sex crimes, and DWI’s. He is a member of the Minnesota Society for Criminal Justice, which only allows the top 50 criminal defense attorneys in the state as members. Max is a frequent speaker at CLE’s and is often asked for advice by other defense attorneys across Minnesota.

Years of Experience: Approx. 20 years
Minnesota Registration Status: Active
Bar & Court Admissions: State of Minnesota Minnesota State Court Minnesota Federal Court 8th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals State of Maryland

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