For the second time this year, some men detained in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) are on a hunger strike. They want Gov. Tim Walz to issue an executive order to end court-ordered civil commitment for sex offenders, or for the Legislature to send him a bill that would end the program.
Given that neither Walz nor any legislators crave certain defeat in the next election, we are certain that the MSOP will endure for the foreseeable future.
As well it should.
Minnesota created the program in 1994, with the goal of evaluating and treating sex offenders while protecting the public from criminals who have served their prison sentences but pose a substantial risk of re-offending. Currently, the state detains about 740 sex offenders through civil commitment, with about 450 of those at a facility in Moose Lake, where the hunger strikes have occurred.
While technically classified as “clients” in a treatment program, the reality is that these people essentially are prisoners who serve indefinite sentences. They can't count down to a release date, because they don't have one, and they might never have one.
Does that mean a 10-year term for a sex crime can become a life sentence? Yes. More than 70 civilly committed sex offenders have died while in state custody (including at least three at Moose Lake who died of complications from COVID-19), so the program's opponents have a point when they argue that “clients” of MSOP are more likely to die than to be released.
Those numbers point to a real problem; namely, that for much of its history, MSOP tolerated a significant gap between the program's “official” goals/processes (treatment and therapy that lead to eventual release) and the actual experiences of detainees who had little, if any, hope of regaining their freedom.
But blowing up the program isn't the solution. Reforming it is, and that process already is well under way.
While no offenders were fully released in MSOP's first 21 years, 14 have been released in the last five years, a fact that should give some measure of hope to current detainees.
Also, the first hunger strike this year, which ended in early February, led to meetings between MSOP officials, detainees and their advocates. Those meetings will result in a report and recommendations for further tweaks of the program that should provide a more easily-understood path toward freedom for current and future detainees. That report is due to be released in just a matter of weeks.
We hope this report brings positive changes to MSOP, but ultimately, we'd argue that when it comes to the release of sex offenders, Minnesota must continue to err on the side of caution. The state has a responsibility to protect the public from people who have been convicted of some of the most heinous crimes imaginable.
Keep in mind that 95 percent of sex offenders in Minnesota are not civilly committed. That fate is reserved for the worst of them, for criminals who are deemed to pose a significant threat to the public.
On Jan. 3, 2017, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that such offenders do not possess a “fundamental liberty interest” that entitles them to their freedom after their prison sentences have expired.