MSOP Moose Lake: Behind Barbed Wire Part 3

Recent violent assaults on staff inside the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in Moose Lake in the past year is sparking another look into the center.
Published: Nov. 2, 2023 at 10:44 PM CDT
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DULUTH, MN. (Northern News Now) - Recent violent assaults on staff inside the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in Moose Lake in the past year is sparking another look into the controversial treatment program.

Northern News Now Anchor Laura Lee investigates the claims made by some clients inside MSOP who say they are being given life sentences for crimes they have already served. In a 3-part series, Lee goes inside the high-security facility and talks to clients who say they are losing hope. She also travels to the state capitol to question the Department of Human Services in charge of the program and review the statutes of the current law. Lee also sits down with legal experts who argue that the $112 million used to fund the program can better serve the community in other ways to prevent sexual violence and she challenges why Minnesota is an outlier when it comes to civil commitment in the country.

The controversial Minnesota Sex Offender Program was ruled constitutional by an appeals court in 2016. Since then, the Department of Human Services says more people are being released than ever before.

To understand the complex program, it’s important to understand how these offenders, or “Clients” as they are called, get in.

“We have learned what it means to be a healthy individual and the healthiest versions of ourselves and we need the opportunity to reintegrate back into society,” said Russell Hatton.

Russell Hatton has been inside the Minnesota Sex Offender Program for 16 years. He and Dan Wilson agreed to sit down with us. They claim they have participated in treatment but are not moving through the three-phase program and they fear they never will.

“I went to prison for four years, that may not have been long enough, maybe I deserve longer, then we need to lengthen the criminal sentencing for sex offenders, but to masquerade a prison as treatment center is the wrong way to do it, it’s dishonest,” said Wilson.

The Minnesota Sex Offender Program is a treatment center for mentally ill and sexually dangerous people operated by the Department of Human Services. These are individuals who have already completed their prison term, and some have no criminal convictions according to the DHS.

But rather than placing them under supervised release, counties file petitions to civilly commit them inside MSOP for an indeterminate amount of time.

“We know that sex offenders come out of the Department of Corrections all of the time, so how does a county attorney decide which ones go into MSOP and which ones get reintegrated back into society under supervised release?” asked Lee of Kim Maki.

“Under the law, we have to prove that they are a sexually dangerous person, to prove that we have to prove one that they’ve engaged in a course of harmful sexual conduct, two that they have a personality disorder a sexual disorder or some other mental disorder or disfunction and three that they are likely to engage in that kind of conduct,” said Maki.

Kim Maki is the St. Louis County Attorney. Her office has petitioned about 20 cases over the lifespan of the MSOP program. Unlike criminal court, in civil court, these cases are not heard in front of a jury, rather it’s a judge.

But Maki, who has been practicing law for more than 20 years, says the state still must meet the burden of proof to move a case forward.

“One of my utmost concerns is community safety and when I look at the people who have been committed and those we seek to commit to the MSOP program I look at, do I believe, do we believe that this person poses a danger to the community and if so we need to take some sort of action to protect the community,” said Maki.

According to a study by Williams Institute, the UCLA School of Law, more than 6,300 hundred sex offenders are detained in civil commitment programs across the country. Of the 20 states with civil commitment programs, Minnesota has the highest number per capita of civilly committed sex offenders of any state.

“In its time, if the theory is that we are moving people through treatment, we should be seeing those results, but we’re not?” asked Lee of Eric Janus.

“Some people may say it’s because of the particular people and it’s the program doing its job keeping them out of communities, but in reality, Minnesota is an outlier,” said Janus.

Eric Janus is President and Dean Emeritus of the Mitchell Hamline School of Law. He has more than two decades of legal and scholarly experience with a focus on sexual violence prevention. He is currently the Director of Sex Litigation and Policy Resource Center. He says even if we accept the premise of what MSOP is, he says Minnesota is operating the program poorly.

“Under our American system, if they are convicted of a crime, they can be sentenced to a sentence that is authorized by law, that’s appropriate, that’s accountability, retribution no problem with that,” said Janus, “but once they fulfill that sentence though, our American constitution says they cannot be punished anymore, that’s called double jeopardy.”

Janus was one of nearly two dozen people including judges and lawmakers selected to be part of the Sex Offender Civil Commitment task force in 2013. They were ordered to examine the program when a federal judge ruled it unconstitutional after a class action lawsuit was filed by the clients inside. The bases of those claims were reversed by an appeals court in 2016 and the program was ruled constitutional.

“One of the things the task force said was we need to have a comprehensive approach to sexual violence, what we have now is not a comprehensive approach, we have a single arrow in our quiver and that is MSOP,” said Janus.

He says one key finding was that too many clients were locked up for too long.

“There are constitutional limits on preventive detention, locking people up in anticipation for a crime they may commit in the future and we as Americans should be very afraid of that kind of government overreach,” said Janus.

However according to Executive Director Nancy Johnston who runs the MSOP program, she says the release rate is based on the client’s own effort.

“Our vision is to end sexual violence in Minnesota, I’ve been here 20 years, I’m committed to the program,” said MSOP Executive Director Nancy Johnston.

Since the ruling, the Department of Human Services says more people are being released. Currently, 92 clients are provisionally discharged meaning they are in transition to less restrictive settings with an additional 130 who are in Community Preparation Services, which is part of the last phase of treatment.

“There is always room for discussion at the legislature for a change in how the law is written which defines the criteria for release,” said Johnston.

The 2023 operating budget for MSOP is $112 million a year. Taxpayers spend $479 a day for each client which adds to about $174, 835 to house each offender inside MSOP.

According to Johnston, a client can petition for release every six months. The current criteria for release must be approved by a special review board and a three-judge panel.

“You got through a three-judge panel to be fully discharged, there is a question about whether it should be that rigorous on the front end, should there be a three-judge panel as well?” asked Lee of Maki.

“I believe that there are adequate protections in the law right now for people who are petitioned for commitment,” said Maki.

But Janis argues the way into MSOP should be just as rigorous with a clear policy of standards to commit someone.

“We can start by clarifying what level of risk is justifies taking away someone’s liberties,” said Janus. He says the current statute is too vague and can leave room for county attorneys to have different standards of review.

Something Johnston agrees with, “with 87 different counties and 87 different judges making those decisions, you end up with a wide range of folks.”

Folks like Wilson and Hatton who say they’ve served their sentences, but those sentences never meant life behind barbed wire.

“We’re not saying let everyone go, we just want to get the proper steps taken so people can receive the help who may be struggling with things,” said Hatton.

“We have overwhelmed the courts with lawsuits, it’s not because we want to be difficult, it’s because we want to go home to our families.”

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