(CN) – Reversing a federal judge, the Eighth Circuit ruled Tuesday that Minnesota’s sex-offender program is constitutional because it serves the state’s interest in protecting citizens from sexually dangerous people.
The three-judge panel found that a class of sex offenders who sued the state failed to prove that the program violated their due process rights under Minnesota’s Civil Commitment and Treatment Act, or MCTA. The appeals court remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings on remaining claims.
In 2011, a group of civilly committed sex offenders filed a pro se lawsuit challenging the conditions of their confinement and certain Minnesota Sex Offender Program, or MSOP, policies and practices, including allegedly inadequate treatment that violated their due process rights. The pro se group secured counsel in 2012 and was later granted class certification.
MSOP is for people who are ordered by a court to receive sex-offender treatment following criminal prison sentences. A civil court can commit someone to the program for an unspecified amount of time if it finds they are a sexually dangerous person, have a sexual psychopathic personality, or both.
The state has three MSOP facilities, with the largest located in Moose Lake. The program uses a three-phase treatment program, and allows a committed person to petition for a reduction in custody, including discharge.
More than 20 years after MSOP was established, about 714 people have been committed. No person has been fully discharged from the program and only three people have been provisionally discharged, according to the Eighth Circuit’s 23-page opinion.
Those committed in MSOP represent about 4 percent of all registered sex offenders in Minnesota and the total number of those civilly committed is expected to increase to 1,215 by 2022.
After a six-week bench trial in 2015, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank declared the program unlawful, finding the MCTA unconstitutional facially and as-applied, and that the statute “is not narrowly tailored and results in a punitive effect and application contrary to the purpose of civil commitment.”
Judge Frank specifically found six reasons why the MCTA was unconstitutional, including the state’s failure to conduct risk assessments, its decision to make discharge criteria more stringent than commitment criteria, and its failure to take any action on behalf of individuals that no longer meet the commitment criteria.
The judge did not shut down the program, but ordered changes to give sex offenders a trajectory for release.
On appeal, the state defendants claimed the district court pre-judged the case against them, violating their due process rights to a neutral decision maker. The state pointed to various comments made by the district court that were critical of the MSOP and remarks suggesting that state officials should make drastic changes to program, court records show.
For example, in one order, the district court concluded, “It is difficult for the court to understand why the parties have not resolved this case in a manner that would address clients’ concerns, serve the public interest, promote public safety, and serve the interests of justice for all concerned. Justice requires no less.”
On Tuesday, The Eighth Circuit agreed with the class that they have standing because their claim is not that they are entitled to release, but that their constitutional rights are being violated because MSOP’s implementation of MCTA violates due process.
However, the panel disagreed with the district court’s application of the strict scrutiny standard.
The district court held that because the committed individuals have a fundamental right to liberty, strict scrutiny was the proper standard to apply to the sex offenders’ due process claims. It determined MCTA had to be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling governmental purpose and that it failed to meet that goal.
But the Eighth Circuit found that the district court applied an incorrect standard in considering the claims, and ruled that none of the six reasons supporting the district court’s finding that MCTA is unconstitutional holds up.
“We conclude that this extensive process and the protections to persons committed under MCTA are rationally related to the state’s legitimate interest of protecting its citizens from sexually dangerous persons or persons who have a sexual psychopathic personality. Those protections allow committed individuals to petition for a reduction in custody, including release; therefore, the statute is facially constitutional,” U.S. Circuit Judge Bobby Shepherd wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel.
The St. Louis-based appeals court said the sex offenders did not meet their burden of showing that the state’s actions were conscience-shocking and violate a fundamental liberty.
“None of the six grounds upon which the district court determined the state defendants violated the class plaintiffs’ substantive due process rights in an as-applied context satisfy the conscience-shocking standard,” Shepherd wrote. “Having reviewed these grounds and the record on appeal, we conclude that the class plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that any of the identified actions of the state defendants or arguable shortcomings in the MSOP were egregious, malicious, or sadistic as is necessary to meet the conscience-shocking standard. Accordingly, we deny the claims of an as-applied due process violation.”
Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper praised the ruling in a statement Tuesday, saying MSOP “is an important tool to protect public safety and deliver court-ordered treatment to sex offenders. DHS will continue to meet its legal obligations to operate these services.”
“Now it’s time for the Legislature to provide the resources we need to run this program so we can continue to keep our communities safe,” Piper said.
It costs more than $120,000 a year to house just one resident under MSOP, triple the cost of prison, according to the Associated Press. Minnesota also has the highest per-capita population of civilly committed sex offenders in the nation.