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Audit Recommends Cost-Saving Measures for Minnesota Sex Offender Program

A March 2011 report by Minnesota’s Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) found that while civilly committing sex offenders increases public safety, the prohibitive costs associated with administering the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) could be reduced by, among other means, developing alternatives to commitment at high-security facilities and improving the adequacy of treatment to allow MSOP residents to complete the program and be released.

Minnesota is one of 20 states with civil commitment programs for sex offenders; in 2010 it had the highest number of civilly committed sex offenders per capita despite having a lower incarceration rate than most states. It is projected that the number of civilly committed offenders will double between 2010 and 2020. With the annual costs of civil commitment reaching $120,000 per MSOP offender – about three times the cost of incarcerating state prisoners – the OLA addressed concerns about whether those costs could be reduced, why the number of sex offenders being committed is so high, and why only one sex offender has been conditionally released from the MSOP since it was created in 1994.

With respect to the number of civil commitments, the OLA noted that Minnesota’s laws facilitate the commitment of sex offenders (relative to the laws of other states). For example, unlike most states, Minnesota does not afford a jury trial to sex offenders referred for civil commitment. It also establishes correspondingly lower evidentiary burdens – the standard for commitment is “clear and convincing evidence” rather than proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Further, hearsay evidence is admissible and, absent physical harm or violence, emotional harm to the victim may still be considered. As of mid-2010, Minnesota had 627 civilly committed sex offenders – the third highest in the nation after California and Florida.

In regard to costs, the OLA noted that overall staffing per MSOP resident at the state’s two civil commitment facilities, Moose Lake and St. Peter, is about three times higher than at Minnesota prisons. “One lower-cost alternative,” the report suggested, “would be to establish group homes or halfway houses for certain civilly committed sex offenders who could be managed in such a setting” – for example, low functioning adult offenders whose risk level has been sufficiently reduced by MSOP treatment.

The OLA cited the civil commitment program in Texas, with an annual cost of only about $27,000 per offender, as a model worth emulating. Texas places committed sex offenders in halfway houses intended specifically for that population, providing them with outpatient treatment as well as close supervision and monitoring. Violating the terms of civil commitment (including restrictions on travel outside the halfway house) may result in a lengthy prison sentence.

With respect to treatment, the OLA observed that several factors, including significant staff vacancies, changes in leadership and an unnecessarily strict release standard, may explain why only one MSOP resident has been discharged from the program. The report suggests that Minnesota could follow the lead of other states in allowing for the release of offenders who no longer meet the commitment criteria, regardless of whether the treatment program has been completed. Such a step may be necessary, according to the OLA, because among the civil rights retained by civilly committed sex offenders is the right to treatment; thus, without an adequate treatment program, a legal challenge might prove successful.

In response to the OLA report, Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson observed that “many of the findings and recommendations are consistent with current objectives and goals to continue to provide sex offender treatment in a safe and secure facility.”

While just one civilly committed offender has successfully completed the MSOP treatment program (though he was later re-incarcerated for violation of his community supervision), since 1994 at least twenty-four MSOP residents have been released from the state’s civil commitment facilities – upon their deaths.

Sources: OLA Evaluation Report, Civil Commitment of Sex Offenders (March 2011);

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