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OUR OPINION: For Minnesota, sensible ‘civil commitment’ reforms

As many Minnesotans know, the state’s civil commitment program for sex offenders stands alone in its severity. Minnesota locks up more offenders per capita for longer periods and with fewer chances for release than any other state.

The federal government certainly knows. Just last month, a federal judge called the program “draconian” and “clearly broken” and urged lawmakers to revise it.

If the governor and Legislature don’t act, the federal court system will, the judge implied.

Luckily, a state task force on the issue released a list of recommendations in December. The list provides a blueprint for reasonable and responsible reform.

The Legislature should give the recommendations a fair hearing. Then, if the results are favorable, then lawmakers should pass the reforms in a bipartisan way.

Yes, the issues of sex offenders and recidivism are a challenge for every elected official, in an election year or any other year.

But it’s not impossible to balance public safety against the constitutional rights of every American, including the 700 offenders in Minnesota’s civil-commitment program — more than 50 of whom, by the way, remain in the program for acts they committed as juveniles.

Other states have done a much better job of striking that balance. One state, for example, puts its offenders — all of whom have finished their prison terms — in outpatient-like halfway house settings. The offenders wear GPS trackers and are intensively supervised, their activities being restricted to work and treatment.

That state is Texas, a place not otherwise known for leniency toward criminals. But its approach contrasts with the one in Minnesota, where offenders in civil commitment face “the equivalent of a lifetime of criminal incarceration in a facility run like a medium- to high-security prison,” as the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis has described.

The Minnesota task force was chaired by Eric Magnuson, former chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, and included the executive director of the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association, the Minnesota commissioner of corrections and the dean of the William Mitchell College of Law, among others.

And while its proposals aren’t radical, they still would go a long way toward making Minnesota’s system a more lawful and maybe even a more moral one.

According to the panel, Minnesota should create a centralized court to oversee civil commitments “and develop options for less violent offenders to be placed in less restrictive settings, among other measures,” the Star Tribune reported.

“The report calls for a centralized screening unit made up of experts who would ‘use the most current and validated risk assessment tools’ to identify individuals best suited for commitment.

“Another recommendation would create a special court comprised of retired judges to evaluate commitment petitions, as well as a specialized office providing defense. The task force also calls for automatic periodic reviews of those who are civilly committed, something that many other states do.”

Said the Strib in an editorial, “Toxic politics has kept the state from acting on its own to overhaul this troubled program, but this latest report is a reminder that smaller steps are both substantive and still possible.”

Put another way, a federal judge now has reminded the state of the briar patch it’s in. And the task force has handed lawmakers a map of the way out.