(CN) - Minnesota has 30 days to evaluate whether sex offenders detained in an unconstitutional civil commitment program can be released, a federal judge ruled.
In June, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank held a six-week trial on the constitutionality of Minnesota's civil commitment scheme for sex offenders.
He concluded that the scheme "is a punitive system that segregates and indefinitely detains a class of potentially dangerous individuals without the safeguards of the criminal justice system."
There are 714 sex offenders whom the state has detained indefinitely under the program, and the number is expected to rise to 1,215 by 2022.
Minnesota has both the highest per-capita population of civilly committed sex offenders and the lowest rate of release from commitment in the United States.
"The stark reality is that there is something very wrong with this state's method of dealing with sex offenders in a program that has never fully discharged anyone committed to its detention facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter since its inception in 1994," Frank wrote in the order.
Since a civilly committed individual is not being detained as a punishment for a specific crime, Frank said courts must "carefully scrutinize any such deprivation of an individual's freedom to ensure that the civil commitment process is narrowly tailored so that detention is absolutely limited to a period of time necessary to achieve these narrow governmental objectives."
Due to the complex administration of the program, it "has developed into indefinite and lifetime detention" for its residents, he found.
"The evidence clearly establishes that hopelessness pervades the environment at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, and that there is an emotional climate of despair among the facilities' residents, particularly among residents at the Moose Lake facility," Frank wrote.
On Thursday, Frank gave the state a strict timetable - 30 days to evaluate the risk of now-elderly offenders, intellectually disabled offenders, and offenders committed for acts they committed as a juvenile. The state has 60 days to draw up a detailed plan for evaluating rest of the 700-plus residents currently committed.
His interim relief order does not require the state to free anyone immediately.
However, he criticized the state's obstinate refusal to complete assessments of committed sex offenders.
"By not doing these assessments, defendants are essentially burying their heads in the sand, rather than doing what is required of them to run a constitutional program," Frank said.
He said the state must prepare to release offenders whom an assessment deems no longer a danger to the public. It must also ensure that less-restrictive treatment facilities are available for residents to be released to.
Minnesota appealed Frank's ruling immediately, and asked that it not be enforced until the appeal is resolved.
Gov. Mark Dayton said that the state is making incremental changes to the sex offender commitment program, but that it should not proceed as fast as Frank has ordered to ensure the public's safety.
"The most important issue is to risk public safety by starting to funnel (offenders) out prematurely, before we have the funding, before we have the facilities and before we have the staff in place," Dayton said.
Human Service Commissioner Lucinda Jesson told the Star Tribune that her agency would need more money in order to perform the court-ordered evaluations, which cost about $10,000 each. She also said the state does not currently have space at community residential facilities to house a large release of sex offenders.
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