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October 16, 2017

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Supreme Court won’t hear Minnesota sex offender case

MINNEAPOLIS — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that it won't hear a challenge to Minnesota's sex offender civil commitment system, which allows people who have been deemed sexually dangerous to be committed to a treatment facility for an indefinite period of time.

Attorneys for more than 700 residents who were committed to the program as "sexually dangerous" or a "sexual psychopathic personality" argued that the program was unconstitutional because only a handful of offenders have ever been released. They argued the "fatal flaw" in the scheme is that Minnesota doesn't require a regular review of those cases to see if the individuals should still be held.

Attorneys for the state told the court that offenders can petition for release using a simple-to-obtain form. They argued that the program is constitutional and necessary to protect citizens from dangerous sexual predators who would otherwise go free.

A message left with an attorney for the offenders was not immediately returned Monday. Minnesota Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and officials with the Department of Human Services, which oversees the program, did not immediately return requests for comment.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank agreed with the offenders and declared the program unconstitutional in 2015 after a trial. A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision in January.

According to recent figures from the Department of Human Services, there are currently 720 residents in the program. Even though the program is more than 20 years old, only eight residents have been granted provisional discharge and are currently living in the community under supervision, and only one person has been fully discharged.

The Minnesota case has been closely watched by lawyers, government officials and activists in the 20 states with similar programs. While civilly committed offenders in California, Wisconsin, New Jersey and other states are allowed to re-enter society after completing treatment, Minnesota has the highest per capita lockup rate, and its courts didn't order the unconditional release of anyone from its program until August 2016.

Dayton has pushed to make changes to the program while insisting it's constitutional, and the state started releasing more offenders in the months after the lawsuit was first filed — after previously releasing just one offender in the program's first 20 years. Dayton has sought more than $20 million to build less-restrictive housing facilities and biennial evaluations to target more offenders for possible release.

But state lawmakers have shown little interest in addressing a controversial — and politically risky — topic while the legal battle progressed.