Within the Scope

Blogging on Administrative Law and the Public Sector

Sunday, June 21, 2009

“Released from Confinement”: What it Means for Offenders, Agencies and You

In an interesting set of opinions issued on June 9, the Minnesota Court of Appeals turned away dual challenges to the risk level assessments imposed by the Department of Corrections’ End of Confinement Review Committee. As readers of these pages are aware, Minnesota law obliges the Department to assign a risk level to predatory offenders upon their “release from confinement.” The two opinions address challenges to the timing of the Committee's determinations.

In Risk Level Determination of M.D., the offender challenged the assignment of a risk level at the conclusion of his Minnesota prison term, because, due to an unrelated offense, he was immediately transferred to the state prison system in Wisconsin. As the M.D. argued, there was not a single moment that he was free from confinement, such that the DOC risk level assignment was premature. Disagreeing, the Court of Appeals held that notwithstanding the fact that undertaking community notification as to M.D. would not be particularly meaningful or eventful, “the letter of the law shall not be disregarded under the pretext of pursuing the spirit.” As the panel concluded, the release from confinement in Minnesota made the timing of the risk level determination appropriate.

Similarly, in the Risk Level Determination of D.W., the appellant challenging the risk level determination was a patient who had been earlier indefinitely committed for treatment in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. Designated as a Sexually Dangerous Person in 1992, D.W, was making process in the treatment program toward eventual re-integration into the community. At each stage of the multi-stage treatment process, the Department of Human Services, in conjunction with the Department of Corrections, convenes an End of Confinement Review Committee for the purpose of rendering a risk level determination. The patient argued that even if he obtained privileges to walk the grounds of the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center, he would still be indefinitely committed to the program and therefore not “released from confinement.” The End of Confinement Review Committee countered that “released from confinement” under Minn. Stat. § 244.052 equals any opportunity that the patient is “permitted to leave the facility and have contact with the community.” The appellate panel held that where the words of the statute permitted either construction of the statute, it would defer to the agency’s interpretation of the law that it administered – particularly where that interpretation was “consistent with the community-protection purpose of section 244.052.”

To my mind, the significance of these decisions is that they recognize a range of policy objectives beyond community notification that are served by the risk assessment statutes. Indeed, tellingly, the panel in D.W. characterized the purposes of the law as “community protection” – a term that presumably includes, but is not limited to, community notification programs. The panels also recognize the accuracy, detail and completeness of agency records on particular offenders as important purposes fulfilled by the statute.

The complete analyses of the appellate panels are accessible here and here.