Federal judge orders Minnesota to fix sex offender program

ST. PAUL -- A federal judge says sex offenders have rights, too, and told state officials Wednesday to either make the Minnesota Sex Offender Program constitutional or he may release some offenders.

1801640+Dru Sjodin.JPG
Dru Sjodin

ST. PAUL -- A federal judge says sex offenders have rights, too, and told state officials Wednesday to either make the Minnesota Sex Offender Program constitutional or he may release some offenders.

It is a debate that began after the kidnapping and killing of Dru Sjodin in 2003, when the number of sex offenders committed to the treatment program began a dramatic increase.

U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank did not order specific changes to the program and said no sex offenders will be released immediately. However, without changes, he indicated that closing the program or releasing sex offenders is possible.

"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," wrote Frank, who as a St. Louis County, Minn., prosecutor and state judge dealt with sex offender cases.

"It is undisputed that there are civilly committed individuals at the MSOP who could be safely placed in the community or in less restrictive facilities," Frank wrote about the program that keeps some sex offenders in prison-like hospitals for years after they finish serving prison terms.


The ruling gives state officials one last chance, after several warnings, to change the program before the judge makes the decisions for them.

"We are going to have to make it a real treatment program," said Sen. Tony Lourey, D-Kerrick, a key legislative player on the issue.

Gov. Mark Dayton and Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson disagree with the ruling and pledged to defend the program.

"He has not ordered any specific changes..." Jesson said in an interview. "We are just continuing to run the program."

Some changes that Frank suggested already are in the works, she added, including putting some offenders in less restrictive facilities. Another Frank idea matches one from Dayton, which did not pass the Legislature, to regularly evaluate the progress that sex offenders make in treatment.

Frank, who then-U.S. Sen. Dayton recommended be named a federal judge in 1998, asked state leaders to attend an Aug. 10 meeting to design a constitutional treatment program. He said that among those he wants at the meeting are Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk

"There may be changes that could be made immediately, short of ordering the closure of the facilities, to remedy this problem," Frank wrote.

Jesson said that legislators would have to change state law and appropriate money for most of Frank's ideas. If he insists that happen before the Legislature convenes next March 8, it would require a special session.


Lourey said that Frank wants politicians reluctant to be seen as letting sex offenders go free to get the message "that we really do have to do something."

Senators already have voted to make changes, some of which fit with Frank's proposals. The House has not taken action.

The attorney for sex offenders who brought the class-action lawsuit against the state was happy that Frank said that offenders have rights.

"This order highlights the complete failure of the political system in Minnesota with respect to these important issues but more importantly, it reaffirms that all people, no matter how disliked they are or how reprehensible their prior conduct, are entitled to constitutional protection," Dan Gustafson said.

Frank said in a 76-page ruling that the sex offender treatment in Moose Lake and St. Peter state hospitals gives sex offenders no "realistic hope of ever getting out," even though some offenders could live outside the treatment centers.

Federal and state laws changed after Sjodin was kidnapped on Nov. 22, 2003, from a Grand Forks, N.D., mall parking lot. Her body was found five months later and Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. of Crookston, Minn., was convicted of her death.

Shortly before Sjodin disappeared, Rodriguez completed his 23-year prison term and was released, but was not committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program.

The fact that Rodriguez did not go into treatment raised such an uproar among Minnesotans that politicians, prosecutors and judges began putting more and more offenders into treatment, boosting the number of clients from 150 then to 714 today.


Minnesota politicians increased prison terms for the worse sex offenders, but did little with the treatment program. In the past couple of years, legislators expected Frank to order major changes, but they mostly avoided voting to let sex offenders go free.

Sjodin was a University of North Dakota student and a Pequot Lakes High School graduate.

The St. Pioneer Press, a Forum News Service media partner, contributed to this report.

Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.

What To Read Next
Get Local