Sunday, March 16, 2014

Federal judge calls Minnesota civil commitment program “draconian”

State lawmakers remain in paralysis as judge threatens action

This is one in a series of on-the-ground reports from clinician Jon Brandt of Minnesota on the high-profile legal battle over the civil commitment of sex offenders in his state, a battle with potentially national repercussions. 
 
Guest post by Jon Brandt, MSW, LICSW*

Three weeks ago, a federal judge issued his long-awaited ruling in a civil rights case brought by civil detainees over the constitutionality of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP). Although stopping short, for now, of declaring the program unconstitutional, the judge ordered new procedures to make release attainable for the 700 detainees. He warned that he may ultimately find the program to be unconstitutional if he determines that it is essentially punitive or if it confines men who are no longer dangerous. “The time for legislative action is now," wrote US District Judge Donovan Frank.

Now, in mid-March, with about eight weeks left in a short legislative session, Minnesota lawmakers are indicating that they are not likely to find bipartisan support to accomplish the reforms demanded by the federal court. If the state legislature adjourns without taking action, it seems likely that the US District Court will impose federal oversight.

Withholding "unconstitutional"

Fully aware that he is knee-deep in constitutional law and up to his neck in public antipathy, Judge Frank’s Feb. 20 ruling in Karsjens v. Jesson is a demonstration of judicial restraint. Judge Frank expressed several times in his 75-page decision that it is too early, in what will be protracted litigation, to rule on the constitutionality of any part of MSOP. However, his ruling leaves little doubt that he will hold the status quo to be an unconstitutional encroachment on civil liberties:
"[I]t appears that MSOP may very well be serving the constitutionally impermissible purposes of retribution and deterrence. … If, with the benefit of discovery, [the detainees] are able to demonstrate that the commitment statutes are systematically applied in such a way as to indefinitely commit individual class members who are no longer dangerous, or that MSOP is administered as a punitive system despite its statutory treatment purpose, Plaintiffs will likely prove up their claims."
Over the past two decades, more than 700 sexual offenders, deemed dangerous by state courts, have been sent to the program for treatment. Once there, detainees complain, disingenuous treatment and onerous program goals make release virtually impossible.

Judge Frank’s ruling appears to vindicate widespread complaints over conditions of confinement and concerns of civil liberties violations. Noted the judge:
"Whether or not the system is constitutionally infirm, without prompt action on the part of the legislature and [the state Department of Human Services], MSOP’s reputation as one of the most draconian sex offender programs in existence will continue."
Right to treatment?

Detainee at Moose Lake detention facility in Minnesota
If the position of the detainees can be reduced to the maxim that “no one has ever gotten out,” perhaps the State’s (defendant’s) position can be oversimplified to, “MSOP clients have no constitutional right to treatment.”   Judge Frank begged to differ with this latter position, expressing that legitimate treatment is, by judicial precedent, one of the essential constitutional underpinnings of civil detention programs for sex offenders (as distinct from criminal punishment). Judge Frank more than hinted at an ultimate finding in support of the detainees’ position, saying:
"Given the prison-like conditions described by Plaintiffs, and the lack of treatment and essentially no-exit regime alleged in this case, it may well be that, with a fully developed record, the Court will find the totality of the MSOP system to be unacceptably and unconstitutionally punitive."
He noted that it would be unconstitutional, under existing U.S. Supreme Court rulings, to operate a civil commitment program under the guise of providing treatment, if this is just “a sham or mere pretext,” and the true purpose is to punish.

Landmark ruling

Judge Donovan Frank
In his ruling, Judge Frank issued a landmark change, effectively shifting the burden of proof on how clients exit civil detention. Prior to this ruling, in order to gain release, detainees had to clear several tall hurdles. They had to prove they had completed the treatment program, demonstrate their readiness for community re-entry, and get the green light for release from two review panels. Under that scheme, in 20 years only two of more than 700 men gained even a conditional release. Citing substantial case law and programs in other states, Judge Frank turned that process upside down:
“It is unquestionable that commitment, at the outset, must be justified by law. Similarly, … continued commitment must also be justified. A statute that -- as written, as applied, or as implemented -- renders discharge from a sex offender civil commitment program more onerous than admission to it, such that individuals who no longer meet commitment criteria remain confined, raises grave due process questions. In that regard, the Court expresses serious doubts as to the constitutionality of Minnesota’s sex offender commitment statutes and their implementation through MSOP.

“Today, the Court finds that it is constitutionally mandated that only individuals who constitute a “real, continuing, and serious danger to society” may continue to be civilly committed to MSOP. See Hendricks, 521 U.S. at 372 (Kennedy, J., concurring). If the evidence demonstrates that MSOP systematically continues to confine individuals who are not 'a real, continuing, and serious danger to society,' then such confinement will be held unconstitutional."
State government paralyzed

A powerful amicus brief filed jointly by law professor Eric Janus and the ACLU of Minnesota is highly critical of the Minnesota program. Laying out relevant case law, the Brief claims that all three branches of Minnesota’s government have abdicated responsibilities for ensuring the program’s tenuous promises. The Brief observes that after the Federal Court advised the State Legislature in 2012 that urgent changes were needed, the 2013 Legislature failed to act; by executive order, the last two Minnesota Governors put constitutionally questionable moratoriums on releases; and state appellate courts have repeatedly failed to correct program deficiencies. 

Citing “massive deprivations of liberties,” and accumulating evidence that civil detention is punitive in nature, the Brief refers to the Minnesota experiment as an “utter betrayal.” If -- as now appears likely -- another legislative session expires without lawmakers taking action, there is little doubt that the federal court will intervene, perhaps as it did in the State of Washington .

Change coming to MSOP

To reassure, it is not the intent of this legal challenge that dangerous individuals be released into the community. Reforming MSOP is clearly a forensic minefield and Judge Frank has been deliberate in navigating solutions. Drawing on a critical 2011 report from the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor, he appointed experts to conduct an initial review of MSOP. He also ordered the state’s Department of Human Services to assemble a Task Force of prominent stakeholders to explore program challenges and make recommendations. The Task Force issued their first report in December 2012 and their second report in December 2013.

In December 2013, in anticipation of his ruling, Judge Frank wisely appointed a team of four nationally recognized experts (identified in this previous blog) to help credibly guide the process. He asked both parties to the lawsuit, and the experts themselves, to identify the tasks and goals to which the “dream team” should endeavor, and then, leaving no doubt that change is coming to MSOP, Judge Frank’s order exceeded the cumulative list, and established priorities.

In addition to a complete review of the MSOP program, Judge Frank indicated that all current detainees will be reevaluated by independent experts to determine whether they currently meet criteria for civil commitment and, if so, whether they could be treated in less restrictive settings. He ordered reevaluations to begin with those likely to be most eligible for a reduction in custody. He even threw a bone to the 100 or so discouraged (or obstinate) detainees who have withdrawn from treatment:
“It defies reason that individuals who are comatose or otherwise completely incapacitated would be considered so dangerous as to require continued confinement in a secure, prison-like facility. Moreover, an individual who refuses to participate in treatment, but is no longer dangerous, cannot constitutionally continue to be confined in such a facility. See Foucha, 504 U.S. at 77.”
Judge Frank directed his final admonition to state administrators and the Minnesota Legislature, which just convened its 2014 session, stating that the time for “substantial changes” is now:
“If the evidence requires it, the Court will act. But it is the Minnesota Legislature that is best equipped to develop policies and pass laws -- within the limits of the Constitution -- that both protect public safety and preserve the rights of the class. The time for legislative action is now. Time and again, professional assessments have identified grave deficiencies in the program. Regardless of the claims raised in this case, and irrespective of the Court’s ultimate rulings on any constitutional questions with which it is presented, the interests of justice require that substantial changes be made to Minnesota’s sex offender civil commitment scheme.

“The program’s systemic problems will only worsen as hundreds of additional detainees are driven into MSOP over the next few years. The politicians of this great State must now ask themselves if they will act to revise a system that is clearly broken, or stand idly by and do nothing, simply awaiting Court intervention.”
In reserving a ruling of “unconstitutional,” Judge Frank has been shrewd in attempting to force Minnesota’s government leadership to the table.   If state leaders acknowledge the federal court directives, seize good research, understand the limits of forensic psychology, and muster the professional courage to marshal bold legislative initiatives, Minnesota could potentially develop a national model for the civil commitment of sex offenders. If not, Judge Frank has left little doubt that the US District Court for Minnesota will rebalance legitimate concerns of public safety, effective treatment, and civil liberties for those under civil commitment.

Either way, these proceedings are likely to contribute to the national debate about whether civil commitment can be effectively reconciled with sound public policy and constitutional law, or whether civil commitment schemes, now in place in 20 U.S. states, are fundamentally “preventive detention,” derived from “society’s opprobrium” of sexual offenders.

* * * * *

Judge Frank’s  ruling (HERE) is a compelling read for anyone interested in the civil commitment of sex offenders.

*Jon Brandt is a clinical social worker in Minnesota, for 35 years working in the prevention of sexual abuse. He provides evaluations, treatment, and supervision to sexual offenders, and professional consultation and training to colleagues. His previous post on this case, a report on the December 2013 federal court hearing, can be found HERE. To contact Mr. Brandt, click HERE

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