Minnesota may have to stop keeping hundreds of sex offenders locked up following a federal judge's ruling that calls upon state lawmakers to change the law by addressing two constitutional questions.
The judge stopped short of calling the state's current practice unconstitutional; however, he did say there are two big issues that the state Legislature should resolve. Those are:
1. Is this sex offender program a punitive one that punishes criminals who have served their time?
2. Does the program actually offer treatment?
In making his decision, Judge Donovan Frank declined to weigh in on those questions. Instead, he scolded the Legislature while directing them to change the program, which he called "draconian" and the "worst in the nation."
"The politicians of this great state must now ask themselves if they will act to revise a system that is clearly broken or stand idly by and do nothing, simply awaiting court intervention," Frank wrote.
With Thursday's decision, it seems the state's elected officials now must decide what to do with men like John Rydberg, a sexual sadist suspected of 100 rapes; men like Kirk Fugelseth, who molested 31 children; and Thomas Duvall, who admits to having 200 victims. All are so-called "patients" and are civilly committed behind the razor wire fences encircling the Minnesota Sex Offender Program at Moose Lake and St. Peter.
Frank has ordered a panel of four experts to evaluate all 700 patients in the program -- including Michael Benson, one of the MSOP patients who filed the federal lawsuit.
"The message we're getting from the court is: This program is not meeting constitutional muster," Benson told Fox 9 News by phone.
For the last 20 years, from Dennis Linnehan to Alphonso Rodriguez, the sex offender debate has been fraught with contentious politics. In all that time, only one man -- Clarence Opheim -- has ever been successfully released. That has critics, and Frank, wondering whether the program can be considered treatment since no one ever seems to get better.
Thomas Evenstad is a blogger and a vocal critic of MSOP. He was nearly civilly committed himself, and he says the program quadrupled in the last decade. Additionally, it now costs $120,000 for each patient -- three times what it would cost to keep them in prison.
"It is an industry; no doubt about it," Evenstad said.
A bill that would have seriously reformed the program in many of the ways Judge Donovan Frank mentioned did pass through the Minnesota Senate last year before failing in the House. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Kathy Sherhan, told Fox 9 News she believes that if lawmakers fail to act, the judge won't.
The challenge before the state appears to be finding facilities that are less restrictive, such as group home settings -- as well as finding neighborhoods that would accept something like that in their community.