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A protracted case challenging the constitutionality of Minnesota's system for treating sex offenders outside prison has gained new life after a federal appeals court in St. Louis ruled that claims contesting the program's unusual conditions of confinement can move forward.

In a decision released Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit determined that a review of allegations that clients of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) were subjected to improper punishment and inadequate treatment should proceed. The decision sets the stage for another pitched debate over the future of the program, which confines more than 730 men in prisonlike treatment centers long after their criminal sentences have ended.

The ruling comes nearly a decade after a group of civilly committed sex offenders sued the state, arguing during a six-week trial that Minnesota's system violated their due process rights under the U.S. Constitution by depriving them of access to the courts and other basic safeguards found in the criminal justice system.

It also comes following unrest at the Moose Lake treatment center, where offenders recently went on a two-week hunger strike to protest their indefinite confinements and demand a clear path toward release into the community.

Some men have been held at the MSOP treatment centers for years or even decades after completing their prison terms — effectively turning the program into what critics say is a de facto life sentence.

In a strongly worded ruling in 2015, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank in St. Paul declared the sex offender program unconstitutional, citing its low rate of release and lack of regular evaluations to determine whether detainees still posed a danger to the public and met the state's criteria for confinement. Frank concluded that a program designed to treat offenders for sexual disorders had become punitive in nature, wrongly detaining people who could be treated in less-restrictive community settings.

However, the Eighth Circuit Court in St. Louis ruled in January 2017 that attorneys for the MSOP detainees had failed to prove the state's actions were so egregious as to "shock the conscience," and reversed Frank's ruling. That decision derailed efforts at systemic changes to the program by removing any immediate court pressure to put offenders on a clearer path toward release, according to MSOP clients and their attorneys.

Precedent cited

Attorneys for the sex offenders have since argued in briefings that the U.S. District Court in St. Paul applied the wrong legal standard in dismissing their remaining claims, and urged the court to reconsider the case based on whether the conditions of confinement and lack of less-restrictive alternatives for the MSOP detainees amounted to unjust punishment.

They cited as precedent a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court case, Bell v. Wolfish, which held that people detained while awaiting trial are entitled to be free from punishment under the due process clause.

Without ruling on the merits of the offenders' claims, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday sent the case back to federal district court in St. Paul to evaluate whether conditions in the program have become "unconstitutionally punitive" as outlined in the Bell v. Wolfish case.

"This decision gives [the plaintiffs] another opportunity to demonstrate that this program is not designed to treat and release people, but is designed to confine them," said Daniel Gustafson, the lead attorney for the class of offenders who sued the state.

"Civil commitment has to be focused on rehabilitation and release. If the goal is to just lock these people up forever, which is what it appears from the history of the program, that would be punishment and is not the proper purpose."

Chuck Johnson, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Human Services, which oversees the MSOP, noted that Wednesday's decision does not change the appellate court's ruling from 2017, which upheld the constitutionality of the program.

"The purpose of the program is to provide effective treatment and safe reintegration," Johnson said in a written statement. "It's important to recognize that the Appeals Court did not rule on the merits of the issues; merely that the lower court used the wrong standards in deciding to dismiss some of the remaining counts raised in the suit."

State officials have disputed the assertion that MSOP clients do not have a clear pathway out of the program, pointing to figures showing that record numbers of clients have been approved for release by judicial panels.

As of Feb. 8, 29 clients had been provisionally discharged by the court and were living in community settings under MSOP supervision. Four others have been provisionally discharged and are awaiting community placement. Over the program's 27-year history, the courts have granted 13 clients a full discharge, meaning they are no longer under the program's supervision.

Minnesota detains more offenders per capita than any of the 20 states that have civil commitment laws, and is third behind California and Florida in the total number of committed offenders, according to a 2019 survey of such programs.

The cost of operating Minnesota's sex offender program — including treating, housing and providing medical care for offenders held at the MSOP's two treatment centers — totaled $93.2 million in fiscal year 2020, according to a legislative report.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisserres