Minn. Supreme Court ruling adds pressure to fix sexual offender system

The Minnesota Supreme Court today warned district court judges to be more wary when statistics are used to civilly commit people who have served their sentences for sexual crimes.

The court today overturned the indefinite civil commitment of Cedrick Ince, who served time for two rapes as a teenager and was civilly committed by Sibley County.

Ince had been on work-release during which he obtained a job at a dairy farm, got excellent reviews from his employer and had an offer of permanent employment. But a day before he was released from his prison sentence, authorities moved to incarcerate him indefinitely as a sexually dangerous person.

Under Minnesota law, a person can only be civilly committed as a sexual predator or “sexually dangerous person” if he is “highly likely” to commit more sexual crimes and is unable to control the urges to do so, and if there is no other alternative to confinement.

What constitutes “highly likely” has been a problem for courts since the state Supreme Court shifted the burden of proof from the inmate/patient to the authorities in the ’90s.

In Ince’s case, an expert witness used a statistical model to show that he remains dangerous, weighing the chances of him reoffending at 60 percent.

The court rejected the method as applied in this case, saying what constitutes “highly likely” is not a numeric value.

“… we remind the district courts that the “dangerousness prediction” is neither ‘a purely ‘clinical’ prediction’ nor simply a matter for statisticians,’” Justice G. Barry Anderson wrote in today’s opinion.

The court didn’t outright reject the use of a statistical model to predict the chances of a person reoffending, but it said other factors must be considered, too.

“Indeed, the need for a multi-factor analysis lies in the very purpose for civil commitment. We have acknowledged that ‘mere dangerousness [is] not sufficient to justify civil commitment,’ but “dangerousness coupled with proof of an additional statutory factor such as mental illness or personality disorder” may support that commitment,” Anderson wrote.

Justice Alan Page, in his concurrence, said people who are committed as sexually dangerous in Minnesota face an “impossible task.” He chided the Legislature, which has failed again this session to reform the system.

“What the Legislature has created is a single, one-size-fits-all commitment system,” Page said.

The State’s failure to provide any option for the civilly committed sex offender other than confinement in a secure facility leaves Ince in a quandary.

The experts testifying at the commitment hearing agreed that Ince — who had a support system in place, was attending treatment, and attained a prolonged period of sobriety — had adapted to intensive supervision in the community. Yet each expert also testified that only a secure facility would, in addition to treatment, adequately ensure public safety.

It cannot be that the only option for nonpunitive, remedial treatment for someone who has demonstrated a measure of volitional control is confinement in a secure facility.

But it is. There are only two facilities for sexually dangerous persons in Minnesota: St. Peter and Moose Lake.

Page’s comments seem timed to pressure the Legislature to reform the sex offender program in Minnesota, after a federal judge warned the state if lawmakers don’t do it, federal courts will intervene, possibly ordering the release of hundreds of “patients.”

But the Legislature has been reluctant to do so, especially in an election year.

Last month, Gov. Mark Dayton acknowledged reform isn’t likely to be accomplished before the Legislature adjourns.

As for Mr. Ince, the court sent the case back to the district court for another calculation of how likely he is to reoffend, and determine whether there’s an alternative to locking him up.

Here’s today’s full opinion.