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Minnesota involuntarily commits more people for sex offenses than anywhere else in the nation per capita, but authors of a new report say the more than $100 million-a-year program fails to meaningfully address sexual violence or recognize the humanity of those it locks up.

Twenty states civilly commit sex offenders. Among those, Minnesota is "notorious" for the number of people it confines, the duration of their commitment and a low rate of community reintegration, according to the report released Wednesday by the Sex Offense Litigation and Policy Resource Center at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

It recommends lawmakers sunset the program that holds more than 730 people and put the money toward community and victim support, sex violence prevention, resolving sex violence crimes and restorative practices.

"This is a very expensive intervention and doesn't have very much of an impact on sexual violence," said the center's Director Eric Janus, a longtime critic of the program. "Even among the 20 states that do this, we are doing it in a way that confines too many people for much too long. That's a civil rights issue, of course. But it's also a resource allocation issue."

The Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP), which has facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter, has faced years of backlash, primarily focused on civil rights concerns. Detainees sued in 2011, prompting a protracted legal battle over whether the system is constitutional. A U.S. District Court judge deemed it unconstitutional in 2015, but the decision was later reversed and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case challenging the system.

The program has continued to face legal challenges and a handful of detainees told the Star Tribune they feel long-standing issues still need to be addressed and many people there feel hopeless about their chances of ever leaving.

"MSOP follows the most current standards and best practices and is a recognized leader in sex-offense specific treatment. Public safety is at the heart of everything we do," the Department of Human Services, which operates the program, said in a statement. "The program is dedicated to providing the therapeutic guidance and tools clients need to break engrained patterns of behavior, make meaningful change and reduce their risk of re-offense."

The new report highlights problems raised in past lawsuits, including concerns about treatment, duration of confinement and delays. But unlike past legal challenges, it largely focuses on the program's cost and whether it's the best approach to address sexual violence.

Seeking consensus on closure

The program costs $479 a day per client, according to DHS. The state budgeted more than $110 million for MSOP in 2024.

Meanwhile, Minnesota spends about $2 million a year on other sex violence prevention efforts, such as grants to nonprofits doing sexual assault prevention services, the report found. It contends that Minnesota has fixated on "a tiny sliver" of the sexual violence problem — preventing repeat offenders — instead of spending state dollars on more comprehensive and effective efforts.

While the new study calls for an end to the state's civil commitment of sex offenders, advocates aren't pushing for changes in this year's legislative session, which concludes next month.

"We're interested in sunsetting this program. But we understand that would need to be done in a very careful, systematic, thoughtful way," Janus said, noting that broad consensus is essential to pave the way for legislative change.

Proposals to change MSOP have been "weaponized" in the past, he said. He noted there seemed to be bipartisan support for a task force's recommended changes more than a decade ago, but, "The minute that it looked like it was going to be a political issue it got dropped like a hot potato."

There is not consensus among members of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA) about whether the state should sunset MSOP and reinvest the dollars, said Kate Hannaher, the organization's director of law and policy. However, she said advocates for victims of sexual violence were at the center of the creation of this report, which is not always the case.

"Whatever happens with the sex offender program, we need the money yesterday," Hannaher said, noting programs for sex violence survivors are struggling to stay open despite high demand.

MNCASA and Violence Free Minnesota, which works to combat relationship abuse, put out a joint statement on the Mitchell Hamline report, calling the disparity between state spending on MSOP and sexual violence prevention "alarming."

What is the future of MSOP?

The state created MSOP in the 1990s. Most people in the facilities have completed a prison sentence, then are civilly committed if a judge determines they have a "sexual psychopathic personality," are a "sexually dangerous person" or both.

The program fully discharged only one person in its first two decades of operation. That number has increased in recent years. As of March 28, the program had fully discharged 24 people. Others are on provisional discharge or are in a less-restrictive facility.

"Only a court has the authority to commit someone to MSOP or to discharge them," DHS noted in its response to the report. "Demonstrated participation and progress in treatment is the clear path to discharge. It is the most persuasive argument that clients can make when petitioning the court for a reduction in custody."

People are about five times more likely to die in MSOP facilities than be released, according to the Mitchell Hamline report. It blames the courts and MSOP's clinical leadership for one of the country's lowest discharge rates, noting that clinical staff influence transfer and discharge decisions.

"The harsh reality is that instead of making us safer, the state's attempts to predict future crime have created a new form of incarceration" that disproportionately confines people of color and targets LGBTQ community members, the report states. It highlights a 2013 Brooklyn Law Review study that concluded such civil commitment laws have "no discernible impact on the prevalence of sexual abuse."

About 95% of people convicted of criminal sexual conduct offenses in Minnesota did not have a prior sex offense, according to the most recent Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission report.

"There's a scientific right way and an evidence-driven right way to deal with sexual violence and that's not what we're doing in Minnesota," said Daniel Wilson, who is civilly committed at the MSOP facility in Moose Lake after serving time for criminal sexual conduct against a child. He helped organize hunger strikes at MSOP in 2021, during which detainees demanded the state offer a clear pathway for people to understand how they can be released.

Wilson is one of a handful of people locked up at Moose Lake who recently called the Star Tribune. Each shared similar concerns about limited access to treatment, a lack of quality and timely health care, seemingly subjective decisions about their futures and a widespread feeling of "hopelessness" that people will never get out.

"It's worse than what people can imagine, because they live in America," Wilson said. "We don't live in America in MSOP."