Today's package of stories by Post-Bulletin reporter Heather Carlson lead to one inevitable conclusion: Minnesota is on the verge of a major crisis involving its system of incarcerating and treating sexual predators.
First, the facts.
- Minnesota is one of 20 states that allows for "civil commitment" of sexual offenders who, upon completion of their prison sentences, are deemed too dangerous to release. Such offenders are housed at treatment facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter.
- Since the Minnesota Sex Offender Program was created in 1994, not one civilly committed sex offender has completed the treatment program and been released. In other words, civil commitment in Minnesota is very much like a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
- With more and more sex offenders being civilly committed, the existing treatment facilities will reach capacity within two years.
- It costs $317 per day to house and treat a civilly committed sex offender. The county from which they are committed is responsible for 10 percent of that cost (Olmsted County pays more than $700,000 per year for civil commitment costs).
- For any offender who is civilly committed after Aug. 1, 2011, counties must pay 25 percent of costs. This was one result of the 2011 budget-balancing fiasco in St. Paul.
Reading between the lines, you don't have to be a legal scholar to predict what will happen (or is already happening). Prosecutors in cash-strapped, sparsely populated Minnesota counties face growing pressure to avoid expensive civil commitments. So, to keep offenders off the streets as long as possible, prosecutors might seek longer prison sentences, because prison is cheaper and the state pays for it. In courtrooms across the state, money will become a major factor in deciding the fate and future of sex offenders.
That's not acceptable. It's unfair to the offenders themselves (yes, they still have basic human rights), and it could put innocent parties at risk when a cash-strapped county rolls the dice and releases an offender who should have remained behind bars.
What's the solution?
For starters, we'd support the creation of a single panel, comprised of psychiatrists and retired judges, that would make all decisions concerning civil commitments in Minnesota. Such a panel would ensure consistency and fairness, and would remove a time-consuming, complicated task from the dockets of overworked judges.
Secondly, the state must lessen — or better yet, eliminate — the counties' share of civil commitment costs. If Minnesota truly believes that civil commitment is necessary to keep sexual predators off our streets, then the state shouldn't force counties to raise property taxes or cut spending in other areas to pay for it. If that means the state must raise taxes on everyone, then that's what should happen.
But there is a way to reduce the cost of civil commitment: Minnesota must find a way to transition offenders out of the treatment centers.
Obviously, some are far too dangerous and mentally ill to be even considered for release. But for others, we'd contend that the current situation offers no hope, which means they have no motivation to take their treatment seriously.
Keep in mind that officially, these are patients receiving therapy, yet they're treated as prisoners whose release date hasn't been set. That's a problem. Indeed, the failure to "graduate" any offenders might someday be grounds for a legal challenge arguing that Minnesota's civil commitment system is unconstitutional.
If such a lawsuit were successful, the resulting mess would make the current situation seem downright rosy by comparison.