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Lawsuits likely over sex offender treatment program
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Gov. Pawlenty says he stands by his executive order to block the release of any sexual offenders from the state's treatment program. Attorneys for some of the offenders are threatening to sue over the decision. (MPR file photo)
Several attorneys who represent patients in the Minnesota Sexual Offender Program say they'll file a lawsuit against the state unless Gov. Pawlenty lifts his executive order forbidding any offenders from leaving the program. Pawlenty issued the order in July, after a report alleging the administration was considering putting several offenders in community-based settings. Attorneys who represent some of the patients in the program say Pawlenty is undermining the constitutionality of the program.

St. Paul, Minn. — Attorney Warren Maas says Gov. Pawlenty's executive order is unconstitutional. Maas, the coordinator of the Hennepin County Commitment Defense Project, says denying the prospect of release undermines the basis of the program.

Maas represents several patients in the program, and says his clients have served their prison terms. However, under a civil commitment procedure, a judge has confined them to the treatment program because they're considered sexually dangerous or sexually pyschopathic.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that programs like Minnesota's are constitutional as long as treatment is provided. Maas says Pawlenty's order runs counter to the court's ruling.

The governor's executive order, standing by itself, is repugnant. It's unconstitutional. He's legislating without the benefit of a Legislature.
- Attorney Warren Maas

"The governor's executive order, standing by itself, is repugnant. It's unconstitutional. He's legislating without the benefit of a Legislature," says Maas. "I don't know if it's one more straw that will break the camel's back, but it is one more evidence of the bad faith that this state is showing when it comes to sex offenders."

Maas says the potential lawsuit would also challenge the credibility of the treatment program. He says the state promised that if a patient commits himself to a treatment program he may be released one day.

About 190 patients are in the program. One patient has been released, but was later put back in the program after a violation. Maas says he believes the state is touting the program as treatment, but is really a way to lock up offenders after they finish their jail sentences.

"These guys have been told, 'You go into this program, you do the program and eventually you can earn your way out.' But they get close to earning their way out and the door slams in their face," says Maas.

Maas says he and other attorneys will likely file a lawsuit by the end of next week unless Pawlenty changes or rescinds his executive order.

"We're not changing or altering the executive order," says Gov. Pawlenty.

Pawlenty issued the order in July. At the time, the governor vehemently denied that his administration was considering a proposal to move one-fifth of sex offenders into community-based settings.

Secure hospital treatment for these patients costs the state more than $100,000 a year per patient. Critics accused the Pawlenty administration of considering release proposals to save money. Officials now admit it was discussed, but say it was shortly before Pawlenty took office.

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Image Sen. Becky Lourey

Pawlenty says he's not worried about any constitutional challenges to his order or to the program. He says no one should be let out unless the state is forced to by the courts.

"I think it's within my authority to issue it. It's largely just a clarification of our positions on the issues. I don't see that it's going to give rise to any legal problems or challenges," says Pawlenty.

Even some critics of how the Pawlenty administration is handling the treatment program say they believe it can withstand constitutional challenges.

Sen. Becky Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, held hearings on the potential changes to the treatment program last month. She says she has concerns that several pyschologists and line staff have quit the program. Lourey says she hopes attorneys don't sue.

"The state and essentially the people have won the right, repeatedly, to move these people back into the community, and I think we'll be able to defend that," says Lourey. "I just hope we don't have to go through it because now we have to rebuild the program. It is in chaos right now."

A spokesman for the Department of Human Services declined to comment for this story.

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