Governor suspends plan to move sex offender clients to Cambridge

At the end of this article is the full letter Gov. Dayton sent to Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson.

Cambridge Mayor Marlys Palmer admits she felt a little better Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 13, upon learning Gov. Mark Dayton suspended the plans by the Minnesota Sex Offender Program to transfer clients to a facility in Cambridge.

In a letter addressed to Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, Dayton suspended the department’s plans to transfer any sexual predators to other tightly supervised facilities, such as in Cambridge, until certain conditions have been met.

Cambridge City Administrator Lynda Woulfe (left) and Cambridge Mayor Marlys Palmer talk about their reaction to Gov. Mark Dayton’s announcement last week that suspends the transfer of clients of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program to a facility in Cambridge. Photo by Jon Tatting

Cambridge City Administrator Lynda Woulfe (left) and Cambridge Mayor Marlys Palmer talk about their reaction to Gov. Mark Dayton’s announcement last week that suspends the transfer of clients of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program to a facility in Cambridge. Photo by Jon Tatting

The Minnesota Sex Offender Program has said it’s currently supporting petitions of 12 intellectually disabled clients to transfer to the Cambridge site housed at the Minnesota Speciality Health System-Cambridge Campus.

The MSOP provides comprehensive services to individuals who have been court-ordered to receive sex offender treatment. Most MSOP clients have completed prison sentences. Clients are civilly committed by the courts and placed in treatment for an indeterminate period of time. A court may commit a person to MSOP to ensure public safety if a judge determines that the individual is a “sexual psychopathic personality” or a “sexually dangerous person,” or both.

Nancy Johnston, executive director of the MSOP, has explained as part of a legal settlement agreement, the Cambridge facility has been working to move clients into more integrated community settings. At the same time, the Department of Human Services has been working to develop alternative placements for MSOP clients who can be served safely in settings that are secure but less restrictive than the facilities at Moose Lake and St. Peter.

Palmer said she was pleased with Dayton’s announcement last week. She mentioned she and Cambridge City Administrator Lynda Woulfe had a two-hour meeting with him Nov. 7 where they outlined their issues and concerns with the MSOP plan.

“The city of Cambridge would like to extend our gratitude to Gov. Dayton for taking the time to meet with us earlier this month,” Palmer said. “I really think during our meeting he truly listened to our concerns that we brought on behalf of the city of Cambridge and our citizens. This latest news will slow the process down and give us all time to do our jobs. We have to know we’ve been given the chance to do the best we could for the city, and hopefully for the sex offender program as well.”

Palmer said she told Dayton the city understands the state is in a tough position with respect to civilly committed sex offenders. However, she informed him the city had plans to use the land around the state facility.

Palmer explained to Dayton that of the 20 acres left from the former Cambridge State Hospital, 8 acres were set aside for a community building. The city’s plan was to locate the new public library on the site, which is located directly across the street from the facility in Cambridge. Palmer said another concern is the Cambridge Community Garden is located near the facility.

Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, was pleased with Dayton’s announcement.

“I was pleased to hear today (Nov. 13) that after months of work on this issue, Gov. Dayton has finally agreed to my position which I have brought forward on behalf of the citizens of Cambridge,” Johnson said. “Gov. Dayton’s directive to Commissioner Jesson to suspend the dangerous transfer of sexual offenders to less secure facilities like the one in Cambridge is welcome news. Today’s news comes after months of unanswered questions and growing concern by thousands of constituents in my district regarding the future of MSOP and the safety of our community. While Gov. Dayton expressed his concern with legislators providing input on MSOP, I would kindly remind the governor that as representatives of the people, lawmakers ought to be more thoroughly consulted on issues like this program in the future.”

Johnson said many questions and concerns still remain.

“The city of Cambridge, neighborhoods and businesses surrounding the proposed transfer site, and hundreds of past victims who have contacted me can now rest a little easier knowing that our state’s leaders have reversed their previous course of action,” Johnson said. “Many legal questions and concerns still remain with MSOP and I plan on following this issue closely over the next several months and during the 2014 legislative session. After spending a career in law enforcement, my priority continues to be the safety and security of the citizens of Cambridge and other communities potentially impacted in the future.”

Johnston previously explained the Minnesota Specialty Health System-Cambridge campus currently serves individuals who are civilly committed for developmental disabilities and present a public safety risk. They include some clients with sexual offense histories and others who are sent to the program as they undergo competency assessments to stand trial for criminal charges. Some clients have dual diagnoses as developmentally disabled and mentally ill.

Woulfe said questions still remain about the future of the Minnesota Speciality Health System-Cambridge Campus.

“Ultimately, there will be something at that facility; whether it stays in the same operation it’s now, or the sex offender program clients end up here,” Woulfe said. “We are pleased that with Gov. Dayton’s announcement there will be a process and due diligence. Hopefully the Legislature will welcome testimony.”

Palmer said the city wants a chance for the appropriate processes to work.

“I felt a little bit better yesterday (Nov. 13) and also when we left the governor’s mansion,” Palmer said. “Whatever happens, happens, but we felt we left it in the most capable hands with Gov. Dayton. We truly had a good conversation with him.”

Palmer said some of the issues the city was having with the MSOP plans was public safety concerns weren’t being completely addressed.

“With the governor’s announcement, the process has slowed down a little and everyone has a chance to take a step back and look at the public safety issue,” Palmer said. “It has always been, since we were young, we were taught to believe the process does work, and we are living it right now.”

The city of Cambridge intends to keep its residents informed of any new developments regarding the MSOP plan via its website, www.ci.cambridge.mn.us, and the city’s official Facebook page.

Below is a copy of Gov. Dayton’s letter:

By way of background, as you know, for many years the State of Minnesota has kept its most serious criminal sexual offenders locked away with virtually no chance of release. That is where most Minnesotans would prefer to keep them, and I agree. As a father and a grandfather. I believe the risks are too high to allow them to walk freely.

As Governor, however, I am responsible to carry out the laws of the State of Minnesota. Under those laws, a person convicted of a sexual crime is sentenced to prison for a length of time decided by the presiding judge, after considering the facts of the case and the state’s sentencing guidelines. Those guidelines have been strengthened over time. They now provide for life sentences for repeated sexual offenses and for the most violent assaults. However, those changes do not affect the sentences of inmates, who were convicted and sentenced under older, weaker laws.

Until now, the State’s tactic to avoid releasing the most serious sexual offenders after they had served their criminal sentences has been to commit them to a “treatment program” in a locked facility at either Moose Lake or St. Peter for an indefinite period of time. The laws establishing these “civil commitments,” which were enacted by previous governors and legislatures, spelled out the conditions, which, when met, were supposed to lead to the provisional discharge of those patients who progressed through treatment to secure but less restrictive treatment facilities. In practice, however, these civil commitments have turned into virtual life sentences. During the past twenty years, only one person has been successfully provisionally released.

As a result, there are now 697 men and one woman, who have been locked away for as long as 20 years after completing their criminal sentences. As I said before, most Minnesotans, including me, would prefer that they stay that way. However, motions are pending before a federal judge arguing that this method of locking people away for life, without giving them actual life sentences, is unconstitutional.

If the federal judge finds the program unconstitutional, you and I will be put in the position of having to do what previous governors and their administrations have avoided: establish treatment and settings that meet the Court’s requirements, while doing our best to protect the public’s safety.

At the same time, the current Minnesota Legislature will have to do what previous legislatures have avoided: revise existing state laws, which govern both the criminal and civil commitments of convicted sex offenders, as well as the conditions for their release; and establish and fund the facilities, programs, and services, which will be needed to satisfy the Constitution, while safeguarding the public’s safety.

You have courageously begun to implement the current Minnesota laws governing civil commitments and provisional releases, which have previously been ignored or avoided. You have established procedures, which include several extensive, professional evaluations to determine whether a patient presently meets the statutory requirements for provisional release; elaborate security precautions; round-the-clock GPS monitoring of the patient’s movements; and the proviso that a single misstep will cause the person to be returned to a locked facility.

I have supported your decisions not to oppose three other provisional discharges, as those cases proceed to a panel of three judges, appointed by the Minnesota Supreme Court, who will make those final decisions. I did so, because I have great confidence in your judgment, and also because I believe very strongly that professionals, not politicians, should make those very difficult decisions. All of the political grandstanding, which accompanied recent news reports about one of these possible releases, reinforced my views.

Unfortunately, I do not believe that your attempts to establish a program of provisional release, as required by current law, can succeed, when surrounded by this political gamesmanship. Accordingly, I direct that you oppose any future petitions by sexual offenders for provisional releases, until after the following conditions have been met. I also direct that you suspend your department’s plans to transfer any sexual offenders to other tightly supervised facilities, such as in Cambridge, until these conditions have been met.

1. The Sex Offender Civil Commitment Advisory Task Force has issued its findings and recommendations, now scheduled for Dec. 1. Its Chair, former Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court Eric Magnuson, and its other members have performed an invaluable service to our state by addressing these extremely controversial problems fearlessly and rationally.

2. The legislature in 2014 has had the opportunity to review existing statutes and make any necessary revisions to protect the public’s safety: the degrees of criminal sexual misconduct, the penalties for those crimes, the civil commitment of sexual offenders for extended treatment, the requirements for discharge, and the subsequent services, supervision, and public protection. None of your agency’s programs cited above will resume until after the legislature has completed its work during the upcoming legislative session.

3. The legislature and our administration have agreed to the additional facilities, programs, and staff necessary for this program’s successful implementation and have provided sufficient funding for them.

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