A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Minnesota's sex offender treatment program took an important step forward Tuesday, when a federal judge ruled that it can proceed as a class-action case representing more than 600 individuals detained by the state.
U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank in St. Paul concluded that addressing each case individually would be an "enormous drain" on court resources.
The Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) has been a magnet for controversy almost since its creation in 1994, as officials sought to confine dangerous sexual predators while honoring constitutional protections against indefinite detention.
Sex offenders committed to the program have finished their prison sentences, but prosecutors and the courts have deemed them too dangerous to release without treatment. They're officially considered patients, but they are not free to leave.
"This lawsuit is saying in general terms that you can't commit people for medical treatment and then close the door forever," said Minneapolis attorney Daniel Gustafson, who is representing the plaintiffs. "Whether there's a settlement that can be reached in this case or not remains to be seen. But certainly if there is a settlement, it's going to have to address this notion that being committed under the Minnesota sex offender program is a life sentence."
The lawsuit's intent is not to open the doors to release people, he said. "Even if you had a different system, not everybody would be eligible for release."
Gustafson said the class-action suit also likely will resolve some of the lawsuits previously filed by some of the offenders in the program. More than 60 suits are pending in federal court, many of which challenge the constitutionality of the program.
The judge's ruling Tuesday was not necessarily surprising but it is an "important step that allows us to move forward with litigation or getting a resolution by settlement," Gustafson said. "This will be far more efficient than trying the cases already pending in federal court."
The program's population has soared since 2003, when the gruesome rape-murder of Dru Sjodin by a sex offender who had served only prison time prompted then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty to tighten the procedure for release.
Until one patient earned a provisional discharge into a Twin Cities halfway house earlier this year, none had been successfully released since the program's inception.
With 605 patients in the MSOP, Minnesota confines more offenders, per capita, than any other state in the nation.
Last month, a high court in England refused to extradite an accused Minnesota pedophile who might have wound up in the MSOP, arguing indefinite detention violated international human rights protections.
In a stinging report last year, Legislative Auditor James Nobles said the state should provide better therapeutic treatment to the program's serious offenders while considering cheaper, more flexible alternatives for offenders not deemed a risk to the public -- a view since embraced by the administration of Gov. Mark Dayton.
Cost pressures have also factored into criticism of the program. The state spends more than $300 per offender a day for confinement in the MSOP, compared with less than $90 a day for supervision by the state Department of Corrections.
Frank wrote that all the offenders in the program face an identical process for treatment and possible release, raise similar allegations about a lack of realistic opportunities for earning their freedom and have sufficiently similar legal interests for their cases to move forward together.
The suit levels several allegations against the state, including failure to provide adequate treatment. It also challenges the constitutionality of the state's civil commitment statute.