Federal judge fed up as state stalls changes to sex offender program

MSOP resident Dennis Steiner, whose last offense was in 1989.

MSOP resident Dennis Steiner, whose last offense was in 1989.

In July, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank ruled the Minnesota Sex Offender Program unconstitutional, calling it draconian and broken.

That’s because in the program's two decades of existence, more than 700 men and one woman have been locked up inside a high security rehab program with no hope of release. Some were kids when they committed their only crimes. Others were elderly with nowhere else to live when they got dumped in the program. All have already served their original sentences.

Throughout the years, therapists in MSOP have been finding endless reasons to prevent the residents from progressing in treatment and earning their freedom, the ex-offenders say. Judges, who are elected, also shy away from letting anybody out.

In recent years, as the program received more scrutiny, a handful of men have won conditional release.

After establishing that MSOP is more of a life sentence than a legitimate treatment program, Judge Frank called on Minnesota lawmakers to fix it. Frank wants risk assessments for every ex-offender to see how dangerous they truly are. He will order those with extremely low risk of re-offending to be released.

The state spent the past five months stalling, insisting that everything’s just fine with MSOP. Late last month, the state’s lawyers blasted Frank for ordering psychological evaluations before they’ve had a chance to appeal his original ruling.

“Actions required by the court would also effectively deny defendants’ right to appeal … by causing significant unrecoverable monetary loss,” the state argued. “Provision of risk assessments and less restrictive alternative facilities would require the expenditure of millions or tens of millions of dollars.”

Frank does not care, however. He dismissed the state’s complaints on Monday.

Dennis Steiner, a 66-year-old who has been committed by the state for more than half a century, says even though the judge seems to be fighting hard to get risk assessments for everyone in MSOP, he’ll believe it when he finally sits down with a psychologist.

“In my mind, this is a done deal,” a frustrated Steiner says. “The [state] can’t just appeal something that is just so totally out of whack. We have so much evidence to the fact that it’s out of whack. What we’re upset about is that they should be taking care of it right away, rather than down the road.”