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Sixteen men who have been cleared for transfer from Minnesota's high-security treatment centers for sex offenders are being held beyond their transfer dates, state officials say, because they lack the space and staff to treat them in a community setting.

The backlog means that these men, who are civilly committed for sex crimes, are sometimes waiting months to be moved to a less-restrictive campus in St. Peter that is designed to help them learn skills to reintegrate into society. While the need to expand that campus has been identified for years, state lawmakers have declined to pay millions more to house Minnesota sex offenders.

Now lawyers for patients in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) are suing the state in Ramsey County District Court, claiming the transfer delays violate their civil rights. They are demanding the immediate release of one man, James J. Rud, who has been held at the treatment center in Moose Lake for more than eight months after a judicial panel ordered that he be transferred to MSOP's community program in St. Peter — where men live outside the secure perimeter but still wear ankle monitors and are closely watched.

The attorneys point to a recent Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that determined the patients have a "clearly established right" to be transferred to the less restrictive setting within a "reasonable time" following a court order.

"This is a question of fundamental liberty," said Dan Gustafson, the primary attorney in the recent lawsuit, which is seeking class-action status on behalf of MSOP patients who have been held beyond their court-approved transfers. "When a court says you have to transfer someone to reduced custody, you can't just wait until it's convenient."

Officials at the Minnesota Department of Human Services, which oversees the sex offender program, declined a request for an interview.

However, in a written statement and court documents, the agency has blamed the backlog in transfers on staff and space constraints brought on, in part, by inadequate state funding. Since the pandemic began, the MSOP has struggled to recruit and retain employees in a tight labor market, the agency said. One out of four clinical positions are currently unfilled, and there are nearly 150 vacant, full-time positions throughout the program. "MSOP has been recruiting aggressively, but it has been challenging to hire the necessary clinical and support staff," DHS said in its statement.

The capacity problems have been exacerbated by the growing number of civilly committed men being approved for transfer by special judicial panels, which have shown a greater willingness in recent years to grant requests for reductions in custody. These panels issued 25 orders to transfer MSOP clients to the community program in St. Peter last year, up from 15 in 2021 and eight in 2013, according to DHS data.

To clear the backlog and comply with the growing number of court orders, Gov. Tim Walz's administration is seeking as part of its bonding bill $21.6 million to renovate two buildings at the St. Peter campus to add 30 beds and provide more treatment space.

The bonding request faces a challenge at the State Capitol, where lawmakers have been reluctant to approve more money for a program that treats about 740 men and costs more than $90 million a year to operate. Nearly every year since 2016, the Legislature has declined to approve bonding requests to add more beds to the St. Peter community program.

As it stands, 16 men confined at Moose Lake and St. Peter have received court orders to be transferred to the less-restrictive Community Preparation Services program, which has 145 beds. The waiting list has declined from a high of 51 men a year ago, before the MSOP expanded its capacity by taking over a vacated building on its St. Pater campus.

"MSOP has contended with insufficient capacity in Community Preparation Services [in St. Peter] for years, which significantly impacts the ability to transfer clients into the program," Nancy Johnston, MSOP executive director, said in a written statement. "Securing funding from the Legislature for more beds has been a very high priority."

The MSOP has been the target of multiple legal challenges in recent years for its practice of confining men for indefinite periods who are designated by the courts as "sexually dangerous" or as having "sexual psychopathic personalities." Some have been held at the MSOP treatment centers for years — even decades — after they have completed their prison terms. As patients progress in treatment, they can be moved to CPS — often seen as the final step on the path back to community life.

Yet men can be held for months after they have been cleared for transfer by the courts, prolonging an already Byzantine process. Civilly committed to the MSOP in 2009, Rud was approved last June for transfer to the St. Peter community program. Yet Rud remains at the high-security facility in Moose Lake, which is surrounded by a fence topped with razor wire. He has received no information on when, if ever, he will be moved to the less-secure setting, according to the lawsuit filed last month in Ramsey County.

In at least two other cases, MSOP patients have waited more than two years to be transferred to CPS after judicial panels ordered it.

Gustafson took issue with the state's contention that CPS has been underfunded, lacking staff and space to accommodate the transfers. "Insufficient funding cannot be a defense" of the delays, he argued. "Because if that were true, the state could say, 'We're not going to provide medical care or food to these people anymore because the Legislature didn't fund it.' That's the logical conclusion of the money defense."

Daniel A. Wilson, an MSOP patient who co-founded a group of detainees pushing to close the program, said the prolonged transfer delays contribute to a "lack of hope" among patients. "It's clear that they never designed this program ... in a way that would promote progression" from MSOP to the community, said Wilson, who has been confined at Moose Lake for six years. "When there aren't even beds available, it becomes apparent that one's progression has little to do with one's willingness to participate in treatment."

"They cast this illusion that it's our own fault," for not moving through treatment, Wilson added, "when the evidence shows there's not enough space."