Civil Commitment in Minnesota

Rehabilitation or a second imprisonment

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

Sex offenders in Moose Lake and St. Peter, Minnesota are housed in so-called “treatment facilities” for, oftentimes, decades after completing their prison sentences, raising questions over the difference between these facilities and prison itself. Approximately 720 sex offenders reside in Minnesota’s post-prison institutions, which are meant to help prepare patients to become well-functioning members of society once again. But as admittances began to increase, a previously rehabilitative community has become one that now looks more like a second prison sentence.

To be admitted into the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, a judge must rule that the individual has a “sexual psychopathic personality” and/or is a “sexually dangerous person” who would likely reoffend in the future. There should certainly be a civil commitment program to ensure the safety of people, but the issue lies in the fact that there is not a completely accurate way to determine if an offender will be dangerous. Taking away someone’s due process, rights of life, liberty, and property without full knowledge that that person would act criminally in society is unjust. In 2002, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the chance a sex offender commits a crime more than once was 80 percent; after many more people were condemned to the treatment centers in Minnesota, as well as those ordered in 19 other states with similar civil commitment programs, it surfaced that that percentage was not backed by any substantial research and could not be used when making fair court decisions. The U.S. Department of Justice took it upon itself to crunch the numbers and found that in a random group of 10,000 sex offenders, only 5.3 percent of them would end up committing their crime more than once. There’s an apparent difference between those two percentages, showing that a better definition and evaluation of possible committees to the program is needed.

But the Supreme Court decided on Monday, Oct. 2, that it would not hear the case for the Minnesota civil commitment program for sex offenders. The possible reasoning behind the judicial court not hearing the case may be because it does not want to be responsible or create precedents for the release of potentially sexually dangerous criminals, which is understandable only to an extent. The Minnesota program laid its foundation in 1994, and since that time 23 years ago, there have been only eight offenders discharged, with the first ever release not offered until August of 2016. That is 22 years of new admittances and no rehabilitations when the initial goal of the program was treatment over punishment. From the looks of it, it does not seem as if these civil commitment programs are succeeding in their current form.

Treating these people based on what they might do in the future is an important risk assessment and is vital to protecting our communities from possible threats, but there has to be a clearer way to determine if they need the help of the treatment centers and for how long. While it is evident that the civil commitment program in Minnesota is necessary to prevent future offences, there is also an obvious problem in the state of living for the residents and an incredibly low discharge rate. There need not be a complete dismantling of the system, but reform of these commitment facilities is imperative.