State officials in Minn. fear court ruling will let offenders go free too soon
ST. PAUL — About 450 sex offenders and mentally ill and dangerous Minnesotans could be released from state custody before they are fully treated, lawmakers and the Dayton administration say, so state leaders are rushing through legislation to keep them supervised.
"It could be days or weeks" when offenders would be released, Acting Human Services Commissioner Chuck Johnson said Monday, April 23, before senators unanimously approved the bill. The House still must take up the measure.
Johnson said there would be "significant and imminent risk" if the legislation does not pass.
The legislation is in reaction to a state Appeals Court decision, which the Supreme Court decided not to hear, that essentially removed the middle step of procedures to release someone from the State Security Hospital in St. Peter, said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove.
The court ruling allows anyone who has reached the "provisional discharge" status to apply for immediate release from state custody.
Limmer and Johnson said people in the provisional discharge program live in state housing and are state supervised, although they do have more freedom than when they were housed inside the security fence that encircles the main part of the hospital. They are not ready to be released from supervision, the two said.
Limmer's bill is designed to clarify that those with a provisional discharge status should remain in custody.
"My bill would maintain a high standard that has traditionally kept our communities safe," Limmer said.
Johnson's Human Service Department said four categories of people could be released after the court decision:
- 20 Minnesota Sex Offender Program patients who have been provisionally discharged or are about to be.
- About 120 sex offenders in or about to be accepted into the Community Preparation Services program on the St. Peter campus.
- 232 mentally ill and dangerous patients provisionally discharged.
- 70 mentally ill and dangerous patients in a transition service.
Those in the sex offender and mentally ill and dangerous programs have been committed by judges, and judges need to approve their release into society. But Johnson and Limmer said with the Appeals Court decision earlier this year and the Supreme Court's refusal last week to take up the case may mean judges are likely to let people go.
"It's simply unbelievable that Minnesotans' safety has been put in jeopardy by the courts," Limmer said. "Violent sex offenders and mentally ill people should not be released until we are absolutely sure they are no longer a danger to the community."
Once a judge releases a patient, the state has no control over whether he or she continues to take medicine or go to health care professionals.
"We believe that a gradual discharge" like has been the case makes for more safety, Johnson said.
Sex offender civil commitments, which begin only after a criminal prison term has been served, have been closely examined by Minnesota officials since the 2003 death of Dru Sjodin.
A Minnesotan, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., was convicted of her kidnapping from a Grand Forks mall and death. He had been released from prison after completing a sentence for a sex crime, but he was not civilly committed after the prison term ended.
The Sjodin case prompted then-Gov.Tim Pawlenty and other political leaders to greatly increase the number of sex offenders committed to the state sex offender program. Since then, lawmakers have increased sex offender penalties, but they do not apply to people already convicted.
About 720 sex offenders are in the state sex offender program. Two men have been fully discharged from the program, Johnson said, with about 20 being placed on provisional discharge status.
Limmer said that "there might be a few who are reacting well to treatment," but many of the sex offenders should not be released.
The worst sex offenders are held in St. Peter and Moose Lake hospitals, in a prison-like atmosphere. Patients have sued the state, saying it is unconstitutional to keep them in prison conditions forever, but they have not won release.
Many of the sex offenders on provisional release live outside the main security area of the St. Peter hospital, but have ankle bracelets attached so authorities know their every move.
An earlier version of this story contained incorrect figures. The story was updated April 25.