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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

8th Circuit OKs conditions in embattled Minnesota sex offender program

The court found capacity issues and a lack of medical staff for people detained indefinitely did not amount to constitutional violations.

ST. LOUIS (CN)  — The Eighth Circuit has once again given its blessing to a Minnesota program that detains certain sex offenders indefinitely, finding that neither the program nor the conditions it subjects detainees to violate their First, Fourth or 14th Amendment rights. 

The program at issue, the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, houses about 740 civilly-committed men in two high-security facilities in rural parts of the state. Most, but not all, of those detainees have sex offense convictions — in many cases, multiple such offenses — and judges determined all to be a “sexually dangerous person” or have a “sexual psychopathic personality” under the terms of Minnesota laws, which first took effect in the mid-1990s. 

Minnesota’s program, one of 20 around the United States, mostly detains people who have completed prison sentences but serves as a life sentence more often than not. Only a handful of detainees have ever been transferred out of the program’s high-security facilities, most of them in the last few years. Lower-security facilities have been plagued by capacity issues, leading to legal challenges and side-eyes from lawmakers when they were asked to increase the program’s budget this year.

Detainees brought a class-action suit against the program in 2011, alleging that it violated their constitutional rights by effectively detaining them indefinitely, using vague treatment goals as benchmarks to determine whether they were eligible for release or lower-security detention. They enjoyed an early success when a federal judge deemed the program unconstitutional in 2015, but the 8th Circuit overturned that ruling in 2017. 

This appeal, in the same suit, concerned the federal court’s determination that the program’s conditions — double-occupancy rooms, barbed wire, random searches, use of restraints and other prison-like security trappings and a lack of nursing or medical staff assigned to the program’s assisted-living unit — were not “excessive, arbitrary or purposeless, and are not punitive.”

The 8th Circuit affirmed that decision Thursday.

“Appellants focus only on the impact of the policy on their treatment and fail to address the other legitimate government objectives it addresses, such as preserving institutional order at the MSOP," Judge Bobby Shepherd, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote in the court’s opinion.

Arguments claiming a failure to staff medical personnel in assisted-living units showed deliberate indifference to detainees’ health, Shepherd continued, was “sparse” and failed to “point to any injuries resulting from this alleged deliberate indifference.” The circuit court declined to address arguments saying that the sex-offender treatment the programs are designed to provide is inadequate, finding that they could have been litigated in the first appeal and should not be revisited. 

The Minnesota Department of Human Services, which operates the sex offender program, has seen a rocky few years. Lawmakers recently announced plans to break the agency up, spinning off its Direct Care and Treatment division into a separate agency after financial issues led Minnesota's legislative auditor to determine the agency's budget was too large to manage effectively. The sex offender program falls under Direct Care and Treatment's umbrella, alongside programs serving people with mental illnesses, substance abuse issues and developmental and intellectual disabilities. 

The program's detainees are also frequent filers in Minnesota state courts, often filing pro se complaints about the program’s conditions. Most recently, privacy complaints regarding the program’s work with third-party vendors have abounded, with detainees arguing that the program improperly disclosed their medical information — namely, their status as sexually “dangerous” or “psychopathic” — without their consent.

Categories / Appeals, Criminal, Government

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