Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

“Are Sex Offenders Patients or Prisoners?”

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That’s the title of this article from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, which examines Minnesota’s civil commitment program for sex offenders, established by state law in 1994. Under this program, when a person who has been convicted of a sex offense reaches the end of his prison term, the state’s corrections department can then request that a judge have him civilly committed. The idea behind the program is that sex offenders may not be safe to release into the community at the conclusion of their prison sentence. Theoretically, they are supposed to undergo treatment during their civil commitment, and then be released. In practice, not one of the 550 sex offenders who has been committed under this program has ever been deemed rehabilitated and released. So, critics of the program argue that it’s just a backdoor way of extending offenders’ sentences indefinitely. (Minnesota was only the second state to pass such a law; today, 20 states have similar provisions. This term the Supreme Court will decide the constitutionality of a similar federal program, but that case won’t affect state civil commitment programs.)

Gov. Tim Pawlenty is requesting an $89 million outlay to add 400 beds to the Minnesota program, which lawmakers have not yet agreed to allocate. Civil commitment is expensive — according to the article, each civilly committed sex offender costs taxpayers $328 a day, as compared with $64 a day for prisoners. That’s both because people who are civilly committed have more rights than people serving criminal sentences, and because the program is meant to be therapeutic rather than punitive, so the facilities are (supposed to be) (relatively) nicer than prisons and offer more programs. There’s little evidence that these programs work, however:

When Eric Janus looks at the cost of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, he sees a waste. The cost of treating offenders there and expanding the program could be better spent on prevention, he said, including changing societal attitudes about sexual violence.

“If you put the same amount of money you’re spending at Moose Lake [a civil commitment facility for sex offenders] and put it into prevention, you’d do a whole lot better at preventing crimes than you’re doing right now,” Janus said.

Janus, the dean of William Mitchell College of the Law … released a book last year critical of civil commitment programs.

“They’re pretty clearly designed to prolong the incarceration of sex offenders whose criminal sentences have expired or are about to expire,” Janus said.

One widespread problem with the programs has to do with the nature of treatment and recovery — to get better, offenders often need to acknowledge what they’ve done, and that includes confessing to previously unknown crimes. In fact, the state uses polygraph tests on offenders to make sure they’ve come clean.

Such disclosures have therapeutic value, Janus said, “but when the disclosures result in further incarcerations, that really discourages further participation.”

One case against the Minnesota Sex Offender Program is being closely watched.

While construction of the new Moose Lake facility was under way, the state housed overflow prisoners at an annex of an adjacent medium-security prison run by the Department of Corrections.

Inmate Wallace Beaulieu alleged in a federal lawsuit that the program began to feel more like prison, with strip searches and restraints.

While Beaulieu first pursued the case without a lawyer, a federal judge soon took a look at it and appointed him counsel — a local law firm and the American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU lawyer Theresa Nelson said the case goes to a key point — whether the line between a therapeutic and a punitive program has been blurred.

“In the hospital setting, it’s got to be reasonably related to the treatment,” Nelson said. “All of these policies, all of these rules, don’t do that. They don’t even look at whether a lot of these policies are countertherapeutic.”

One Response

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  1. I think it depends on the state. My impression is that Iowa has released from civil commitment few (if any) sex offenders after successful treatment. If that is the case the results for Iowa and Minnesota are similar. In Iowa the legislature keeps moving the goalposts.

    John Neff

    February 21, 2010 at 3:49 pm


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