A Minnesota federal district court judge has ruled the state’s practice of holding some sex offenders after they complete their prison sentences is unconstitutional. The holding of sex offenders judged to be mentally ill beyond the time they were sentenced to prison is practiced in 20 states and by the federal government.
The ruling does not directly affect commitment programs in other states, but officials elsewhere were paying close attention to the outcome, largely because questions about the constitutionality, costs and effectiveness of holding sex offenders beyond their prison terms have long been debated.
Judge Donovan W. Frank of the Federal District Court in St. Paul found that Minnesota’s program, which holds more than 700 people for indefinite periods, failed to release some no longer meeting criteria for confinement.
“The overwhelming evidence at trial established that Minnesota’s civil commitment scheme is a punitive system that segregates and indefinitely detains a class of potentially dangerous individuals without the safeguards of the criminal justice system,” Frank wrote.
Since the 1990s when Minnesota began involuntarily committing sex offenders deemed “sexually dangerous” or “sexual psychopathic personalities” to the treatment program after they finished prison terms, no one has been found to have improved enough to be discharged. Three have been released with tight restrictions.
The judge’s finding in the class-action lawsuit, filed in 2011 by 14 people who were being held, leaves state officials and lawmakers to come up with suitable repairs to the program during a second phase of the case this summer.
The U. S. Supreme Court ruled in 1997 in Kansas v. Hendricks that such civil commitment laws are constitutional in part because their intent was to provide intense treatment, not punishment.
Dan Gustafson, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said Minnesota treated those committed essentially as prisoners. He said there was no annual process for determining whether any had improved to the point where they were no long dangerous, the treatment itself and the required sequence of steps for moving toward release shifted repeatedly and some being held could well have functioned in less restrictive settings.
“It is fundamental to our notions of a free society that we do not imprison citizens because we fear that they might commit a crime in the future,” Frank wrote in his 76-page finding.
The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers listed the following states that have enacted laws similar to Minnesota’s: Arizona, California, New York, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin. The District of Columbia has also enacted a law permitting the civil commitment of sexual offenders.
The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 authorized the federal government to institute a civil commitment program for sex offenders.