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Last edited July 2022

Minnesota Issue Guide
Minnesota Sex Offender Program

This guide is compiled by staff at the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library on a topic of interest to state legislators. It introduces the topic and points to sources for further research. It is not intended to be exhaustive.

Legislative History   Books and Reports   Articles   Internet Resources   Additional Library Resources

"... the Court conducted a lengthy trial over six weeks to determine whether it should declare that the Minnesota statutes governing civil commitment and treatment of sex offenders are unconstitutional as written and as applied. The Court concludes that Minnesota's civil commitment statutes and sex offender program do not pass constitutional scrutiny."
Karsjens et al. v. Minnesota Department of Human Services et al. (June 2015)

Thus begins the summary of a highly anticipated decision by U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank. The decision (reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit in January 2017) was the culmination of years of legislative actions, court proceedings, studies, and evaluations regarding the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).

The roots of the decision extend back to 1939 with the enactment of the first Minnesota psychopathic personality law (Laws of Minnesota 1939, chapter 369). The modern history is often traced to the 1989 recommendations of a task force created by the Minnesota Attorney General. One of the recommendations from the Final Report of the Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Violence Against Women was that "the legislature should permit an indeterminate term of confinement for dangerous convicted sex offenders to be imposed in addition to a determinate prison term." The report also noted that the sexual psychopathic personality commitment statute was infrequently used but should be used to confine violent sexual offenders. In the years following those recommendations, increasing numbers of sex offenders were civilly committed. However, after a civilly-committed offender successfully challenged his commitment, the Minnesota Legislature met in a 1994 special session and passed a  law "establishing standards and procedures for the commitment of sexually dangerous persons." (Laws of Minnesota 1994, 1st Spec. Sess. Chapter 1)

By the early 2000s there were concerns about the number of sex offenders being committed, the costs involved, and the treatment and rights of those committed at the St. Peter and Moose Lake facilities. In addition, the fact that no one had ever been fully released from the program was a growing issue. In 2003, Minnesota Department of Human Services officials began exploring options for community-based treatment of selected sex offenders. Governor Tim Pawlenty responded to those efforts with the issuance of a governor's executive order (Minnesota Executive Order 03-10) to "provide clear direction to state agencies and the Commissioner of Human Services" regarding civilly committed sex offenders. The order stated, "State agencies will ensure that no person who has been civilly committed under Minnesota law as a sexually dangerous person or as a person with a sexual psychopathic personality is discharged into the community unless required by law or ordered by a court...". Governor Mark Dayton renewed that order in 2011 (Minnesota Executive Order 11-08).

In 2010, the Minnesota Legislature directed the Office of the Legislative Auditor to review the state's program. The auditor's report, Civil Commitment of Sex Offenders, was released in March 2011. Along with various recommendations it was also noted, "Without releases, Minnesota is susceptible to lawsuits challenging the adequacy of the treatment program." In fact, lawsuits were filed by a number of civilly-committed sex offenders. In July 2012, those lawsuits were certified as a class action with the "class" being all patients currently civilly committed in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. The next month, Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan ordered the state to create a task force to examine the Minnesota Sex Offender Program and to report on options for program reform. The Final Report of the Sex Offender Civil Commitment Advisory Task Force was issued in December 2013. Also, that month, the court ordered a Federal Rule of Evidence 706 program review. A panel of experts issued its recommendations in November 2014.

Following the July 2015 court decision that found the MSOP unconstitutional, Judge Frank named former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Eric Magnuson as a special master to oversee court-ordered changes. The court scheduled an August pre-hearing conference to which the governor and legislative leaders were "respectfully" urged to attend. Several days later, a court order set September 30, 2015, as the date that the court would hear "remedy proposals"; Judge Frank warned of a "more forceful solution" if the state failed to offer any proposals. The state responded saying that it would offer no remedies, based on its position that "the sex offender civil commitment statute and defendants' administration of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program are constitutional."

On October 28, 2015, Judge Frank responded with an order that directed the state to assess the risk of every one of the more than 700 offenders currently committed to the St. Peter and Moose Lake facilities; the order also established a timeline for compliance. In addition, it required the creation of a plan to conduct annual individual assessments. The state must also ensure that less restrictive alternatives are available to accommodate individuals found eligible for a reduction in custody. Those found eligible for discharge must be provided transitional services and discharge planning needed to facilitate the individual's successful transition into the community.

The State of Minnesota immediately requested a stay of Judge Frank's order. On November 23, 2015, the judge rejected that motion. Later that day, the state filed a stay with the U.S. Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit. The Court quickly granted a temporary stay, followed by a full stay on December 15, 2015. On December 29, 2015, the Minnesota House of Representatives filed an Amicus brief in the state's appeal of Judge Frank's ruling. Oral arguments before a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit were heard in St. Louis, Missouri on April 12, 2016. In a decision released on January 3, 2017, the judges  reversed the lower court's decision, finding no constitutional violation, and vacated Judge Frank's order. The case was returned to the U.S. District Court in Minnesota for further proceedings on the remaining claims in the plaintiffs' complaint. In a petition filed January 31, 2017, lawyers for the plaintiffs asked for a rehearing before the full Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. That request was denied on February 22, 2017.

Following the appellate court decision, proceedings resumed in the U.S. District Court. In March 2017, the court ordered the parties to establish a schedule. However, on May 3, 2017, Judge Frank put a temporary halt to the proceedings with the issuance of an order stating that "this matter is stayed in its entirety" for a period of 90 days. On May 19, 2017, attorneys for the plaintiffs submitted a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, requesting that it review the decision of the appellate court.  In a statement released October 2, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case. On August 23, 2018, District Court Judge Frank dismissed the remaining claims that had been put on hold pending appellate court proceedings.  

A decision released on February 24, 2021, by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, set up the Sex Offender Program for a questionable future. The decision states to “clarify the legal standard applicable to the conditions of confinement claims brought by civilly committed individuals." Twice in 2021 detainees at the Moose Lake facility participated in hunger strikes to protest the conditions of the facility and the historically low rate of release from the program. Both strikes ended after two weeks, when officials agreed to program release reform discussions. According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services MSOP statistics, "as of June 30, 2022, there were 739 civilly committed clients in the program. Another 38 clients who have been provisionally discharged by the court were living in Minnesota communities under MSOP supervision. In addition, fewer than 10 more clients had been granted provisional discharge and were awaiting community placement."

Legislative History

This section summarizes major additions or changes to the law. It is not exhaustive.

Session Laws

Laws of Minnesota 1939, chapter 369, section 1 - Created the "Sexual Psychopathic Personality Statute."

Laws of Minnesota 1994, chapter 636, article 8, section 20 - Clarified the law after several court decisions and created the Sexual Predators Task Force.

Laws of Minnesota 1994, 1st Special Session, chapter 1 - Created "Sexually Dangerous Persons" and "Sexually Psychopathic Personality" categories under 253D as recommended by the Sexual Predators Task Force.

Laws of Minnesota 2011, chapter 102, article 6, section 1 - Instructed the Commissioner of Human Services to consult with the Revisor of Statutes and propose legislation that clearly organizes the civil commitment law and distinguishes it from other forms of civil commitment, in response to recommendations in the 2011 Office of the Legislative Auditor report, "Civil Commitment of Sex Offenders."

Laws of Minnesota 2013, chapter 49 - Separated statutes relating to civil commitment of sex offenders from those related to civil commitment of other populations.

Laws of Minnesota 2018, chapter 194 - Modified provisions relating to discharge from civil commitment for persons committed as mentally ill and dangerous, sexually dangerous, or persons with a sexual psychopathic personality.

Laws of Minnesota 2021, chapter 11, article 6, section 3 - Instructed the Department of Corrections or county attorney to notify the treatment facility of a victim's request for notification of an individual's discharge or release from the facility the in which the individual is confined.

Key Statutes

Chapter 253D. Civil Commitment and Treatment of Sex Offenders - "Minnesota Commitment and Treatment Act: Sexually Dangerous Persons and Sexual Psychopathic Personalities."

Chapter 253B. Civil Commitment - "Minnesota Commitment and Treatment Act."

Significant Books and Reports

Annual Performance Report. Minnesota Sex Offender Program. (KFM5967.S3 M55)

Final Report. Attorney General's Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Violence Against Women, February 15, 1989. (HV6565.M6 M56)

Final Report / Sex Offender Civil Commitment Advisory Task Force. Minnesota Department of Human Services, December 2013. (KFM5967.S3 M555 2013)

Magnuson, Eric J., compiler. Selected Materials Regarding the Sex Offender Civil Commitment Advisory Task Force. [publisher not identified], January 2013. (KFM5967.S3 M34 2013)

Minnesota Security Hospital and the Minnesota Sex Offender Program: Census and Fiscal Projections. Minnesota Department of Human Services. (RC445.M62 M6) 

Sex Offender Treatment in Prison: Fact Sheet. Minnesota Department of Corrections, April 2015. (RC560.S47 S493 2015)

Yunker, John, et. al. Civil Commitment of Sex Offenders. Office of the Legislative Auditor, State of Minnesota, Program Evaluation Division, 2011, (2012 and 2014 updates). (KFM5967.S3 C57 2011)

Significant Articles

(articles in reverse chronological order)

Serres, Chris. "New lawsuit accuses Minnesota Sex Offender Program of violating patients' civil rights." Star Tribune, March 22, 2023.

Brown, Laura. "Disparate penalties for civilly committed people upheld." Minnesota Lawyer, June 29, 2022.

Ferguson, Dana. “Moose Lake hunger strike spurs new discussion about Minnesota Sex Offender Program.Duluth News Tribune, August 2, 2021. 

Cadeau, Teri. “Protesters honk for hunger strikers, call for end of Moose Lake sex offender program.” Inform, July 11, 2021. 

Mewes, Trey. “State officials push for $17.8M St. Peter MSOP project.” Mankato Free Press, April 6, 2021. 

Serres, Chris. “Case challenging constitutionality of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program can move forwardStar Tribune, February 24, 2021. 

Turtinen, Melissa. “Men at Moose Lake sex offender facility end 2-week hunger strike.Bring Me the News, February 8, 2021. 

Lieberman, Hallie. "Sex Offender Laws Are Broken: These Women Are Working To Fix Them: Standing up for the Rights of a Widely Reviled Group isn't for the Faint of Heart." Reason, February 2020.

Karnowski, Steve. "Protracted Minnesota Sex Offender Program Suit Comes to End." Minnesota Public Radio News (Associated Press), August 23, 2018.

Snarr, Haley and Susan Parnas Frederick. "The Complexities of Sex Offender Registries." LegisBrief (NCSL), May 2018. 

Kayser, Zach. "Amended Sex Offender Release Bill Passes House, Senate, Going to Governor." Session Daily, May 18, 2018.   

Bierschbach, Briana. "After Court Ruling, Legislators Scramble to Clarify Law on Releasing Sex Offenders." MinnPost, April 24, 2018.                                      

"Sex Offender Decision Shouldn't End Reform [editorial]." Star Tribune, October 8, 2017.

Bierschbach, Briana. "The Legal Fight over Minnesota's Sex Offender Program Could Have Ramifications Throughout the Country." MinnPost, September 28, 2017.

Jones, Barbara L. "SCOTUS to Mull Accepting Sex Offender Lawsuit." Minnesota Lawyer, August 20, 2017, p. 1, 7.

Bierschbach, Briana. "Appeals Court Ruling on Minnesota's Sex Offender Program Means Uncertainty for Offenders — and a New Political Reality for Lawmakers." MinnPost, January 19, 2017.

Jones, Barbara L. "MSOP Suit Presents Constitutional Conundrum." Minnesota Lawyer, January 16, 2017.

Feldman, Noah. "Sex Offender Lockup Should Trouble Court More." Bloomberg, January 4, 2017.

Serres, Chris. "Appellate Court Affirms Constitutionality of Minnesota's Sex-Offender Program." Star Tribune, January 4, 2017.

Bierschbach, Briana. "After Years of Indefinitely Locking Up Sex Offenders, Minnesota Now Faces a Thornier Issue: How to Let Them Out." MinnPost, April 13, 2016.

Woolman, Joanna and Jennifer K. Anderson. "Going Against the Grain of the Status Quo: Hopeful Reformations to Sex Offender Civil Commitment in Minnesota--Karsjens v. Jesson." Mitchell Hamline Law Review, vol. 42 no. 4 (2016), p. 1363-1433.

Condon, Patrick. " Minnesota Political Leaders Struggle to Fix Constitutionally Questionable Sex Offender Policy: As Judge Presses for Reforms, Even Defenders Admit Flaws." Star Tribune, November 26, 2015.

Mosedale, Mike. "Staking Out a Middle Ground: Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman Tries to Bust the Deadlock in the MSOP Mess." Minnesota Lawyer, November 9, 2015.

Davey, Monica. "States Struggle With What to Do With Sex Offenders After Prison." New York Times, October 29, 2015.

Janus, Eric S. & Brandt, Jon. "Karsjens v. Jesson: Challenging the Un-Civil Commitment of Civil Rights." American Bar Association: Access to Justice, July 2, 2015.

Kauffman, Gretel. "Minnesota Sex Offender Program Declared Unconstitutional. Now What?" Christian Science Monitor, June 18, 2015. (Article link works on the legislative network.)

Frezzo, Cynthia A. "Treatment Under Razor Wire: Conditions of Confinement at the Moose Lake Sex Offender Treatment Facility." American Criminal Law Review, vol. 52 no. 3 (Summer 2015), p. 653-677.

Ellman, Ira Mark and Tara Ellman. Frightening and High’: The Supreme Court’s Crucial Mistake About Sex Crime Statistics." Constitutional Commentary, Vol. 30, 2015, p. 495-508.

Massopust, Lucy & Borrelli, Raina. "'A Perfect Storm': Minnesota's Sex Offender Program - More Than Twenty Years Without Successful Reintegration." William Mitchell Law Review, vol. 41 no. 3 (2015): 707-779.

Ostrem, Mark A. "MSOP: A County Attorney's Perspective." William Mitchell Law Review, vol. 41 no. 3 (2015) p. 698-705.

Sheran, Kathy. "MSOP: A Minnesota State Senator's Perspective." William Mitchell Law Review, vol. 41 no. 3 (2015) p. 689-697.

Bierschbach, Briana. "The Minnesota Sex Offender Program, Explained." MinnPost, July 22, 2014.

Duwe, Grant. "To What Extent Does Civil Commitment Reduce Sexual Recidivism? Estimating the Selective Incapacitation Effects in Minnesota." Journal of Criminal Justice, vol. 42 no. 2 (2014), p. 193-202. (KFM5967.S3 D89 2014)

Peters, Mark & Kesling, Ben. "Sexual Offenders Vex a State." Wall Street Journal, November 14, 2013.

"Sex Offender Civil Commitment Special Issue." Journal of Psychiatry and Law, vol. 36 no. 3 (Fall 2008), p. 355-520. (Article link works on the legislative network.)

Marcotty, Josephine. "State Looks to Release Sexual Psychopaths: Is Concern for Offenders, or the Lock-Up Program's High Cost Driving Change?" Star Tribune, June 22, 2003.

Schlank, Anita and Rick Harry. "The Treatment of the Civilly Committed Sex Offender in Minnesota: A Review of the Past Ten Years." William Mitchell Law Review, vol. 29 no. 4 (2003), p. 1221-1239.

Significant Internet Resources

11-3659 - Karsjens et al. v. Minnesota Department of Human Services et al. - A collection of court documents from the lawsuit that resulted in the 2015 order to revamp the Minnesota Sex Offender Program.

Eric S. Janus Bibliography - a Professor of Law at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, Janus has written extensively on the subject of sex offenders and civil commitment. He was a member of the Sex Offender Civil Commitment Advisory Task Force.

Minnesota Court Rules - Special Rules of Procedure Governing Proceedings Under the Minnesota Commitment and Treatment Acts

Minnesota State Law Library Legal Topic: Sex Offender Statutes, Minnesota - Their guide provides access to many resources related to sex offenders in Minnesota.

Sex Offender Civil Commitment Advisory Task Force - Minnesota Department of Human Service's archive of task force materials, including reports and meeting minutes.

Sex Offender Treatment - The official website of the Minnesota Department of Human Service's sex offender program.

Additional Library Resources

Information from the Legislative Library's Minnesota Agencies Database:

Minnesota Sex Offender Program

Sex Offender Civil Commitment Advisory Task Force - Includes a link to Task Force Meeting Minutes and Audio.

Sexual Predators Task Force

For additional reports at the Legislative Reference Library, use this Library catalog search:
Sex Offenders

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