A high-risk pedophile held for 19 years in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program will be discharged to a St. Paul halfway house under a precedent-setting ruling handed down Friday by a judicial panel in Ramsey County.
The discharge of Clarence Opheim, 64, is the first to be granted by judicial order since the program's creation in 1994 and will test Minnesota's ability to balance public safety concerns against the constitutional rights of offenders held under court commitment.
The abrupt ruling came after the three judges learned just before a hearing Friday that there were no objections to Opheim's discharge from state Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, whose agency oversees the sex-offender program, or the Hennepin County attorney's office.
Opheim, who was convicted in Hennepin County of criminal sexual assault of a teenage boy in the late 1980s, was committed to the sex-offender program at its inception, after serving about four years in prison.
Three weeks ago, Jesson wrote the court saying she opposed Opheim's discharge, but reversed herself after reviewing an independent examiner's file on Opheim's progress in chemical dependency counseling. She said she concluded that Opheim had progressed enough to deserve greater freedom.
"This is to advise the panel that based upon a thorough review of Mr. Opheim's entire treatment file ... I do not oppose Mr. Opheim's petition for provisional discharge," Jesson wrote in a letter dated Feb. 3.
Following a 20-minute hearing Friday morning, the judges accepted a detailed discharge plan agreed upon between Jesson's agency and the county attorney's office, a strict blueprint governing Opheim's life as he moves from an unlocked but monitored residence on the grounds of the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter to the halfway house in St. Paul.
Opheim has lived under supervision in the St. Peter residence since mid-2009. The St. Paul halfway house is staffed around the clock and is licensed by the state Department of Corrections.
Ramsey County District Judge Anne Smith is expected to draft the formal order next week, and Opheim could begin his new phase of life within two months.
"I cannot minimize the horrors of his past crimes, but the law is clear," Jesson said Friday. "They have a plan in place and I believe, after close examination of the examiner's report, that a provisional discharge should be granted. If he strays from the provisions we will pull him back immediately."
With two other patients up for release from the sex-offender program, Jesson emphasized that she will consider cases individually, based on treatment progress. She has opposed releasing John Rydberg, whose case is under review by the judicial panel, because of the severity and number of his crimes. Rydberg has admitted to more than 90 sexual offenses. His was the first case, in early 2011, presented to the judges for discharge consideration. A decision is expected this spring.
The sex-offender program has more than 650 patients, about 620 at a Moose Lake facility and the rest in St. Peter.
In the late 1990s, a Department of Human Services special review board granted provisional discharge for a patient, but it was revoked after he committed technical violations of his release. Opheim's case represents the first time that judicial review has resulted in a discharge ruling.
Upon his discharge, Opheim will be required to wear an electronic ankle bracelet to monitor his whereabouts, attend Alcoholic Anonymous meetings and counseling sessions at St. Paul-based Project Pathfinder, an intense outpatient therapy program for sex offenders who have completed prison sentences.
Warren Maas, executive director of Pathfinder, said he welcomed the opportunity to prove that sex offenders such as Opheim can be properly supervised, obtain work in the community and find some sort of redemption. He said he's well aware of the scrutiny his organization will receive.
"It is impossible to guarantee that anyone can be risk-free,'' Maas said. "Lowered risk, plus rehabilitation, plus adequate supervision, plus community education equals public safety. If we can create a system that can help these guys succeed, the community will be safer."
Friday's decision marked a new beginning of sorts for the often-maligned sex-offender program.
"It's historic," said Dennis Benson, its executive director. "It's certainly a new day -- an individual now has the opportunity to go to the next step, and it speaks to the treatment quality. But let's remember this is only one case, and we deal with the most sophisticated and difficult perpetrators in the state."
The decision comes at a time when nearly 30 of the program's patients claim in lawsuits that their constitutional rights are being violated because the state continues to hold them even though they have met conditions for release. They have asked a federal judge to combine their cases and certify them as a class action. That decision is not expected for about a month.
Paul McEnroe • 612-673-1745