Jonathan Earl Brown, by most accounts, was trying to get his life back on track when he was released from a Ramsey County workhouse early last year.
After serving nearly two years for criminal sexual contact with a minor, Brown, 26, enrolled at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and began searching for a stable job and a place to live.
But just four months into his probation, Brown was sent back to prison. His offense: failing to enter sex offender treatment that he could not afford.
Attorneys and therapists say his case has exposed a major gap in Minnesota’s system of treatment for the nearly 1,600 convicted sex offenders who live under supervision in the community after leaving prison.
In Minnesota, sex offenders are often ordered by local judges to pay for their own treatment as a condition of probation. Yet many walk out of prison too broke to afford the co-payments. Brown was homeless, jobless and so destitute that his probation officer suggested he sell his blood to cover his $42 co-payment, court records show.
Last month a state appeals court panel upheld the revocation of Brown’s probation, triggering denunciations by prisoner advocates and public defenders. In an unusually blistering dissent, Chief Judge Edward Cleary said that preventing indigent sex offenders from obtaining treatment, due to lack of funds, sets them up for failure and undermines public safety. Quoting a Charles Dickens novel, “Martin Chuzzlewit,” the judge wrote: “Dollars! All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues, and associations seemed to be melted down into dollars.”
Requiring convicted sex offenders to pay for their own treatment is touted as a way to give them a financial incentive to do well in therapy and take responsibility for their crimes. Yet treatment programs are few in number and expensive; health insurers often won’t cover individual therapy, forcing offenders to dig into their own pockets to pay for treatment ordered by the courts.
Grants help, but not enough
“Time and time again, we see offenders not being treated because they can’t pay for it,” said Erik Withall, an assistant state public defender who is representing Brown.
To help fill this gap, the Minnesota Department of Corrections provides $2.4 million in grants each year to community treatment providers throughout the state. But public defenders say the grants are inadequate to meet the demand, and many treatment programs have long waiting lists because of scarce funds. The state grants also require treatment programs to charge co-payments, which can be a heavy burden on offenders just out of prison and struggling to find work, say court-appointed attorneys who represent offenders.
“We’re all drinking out of the same funding bucket, but that bucket is much too small,” said Diane Neal, executive director at Project Pathfinder, a St. Paul nonprofit that provides outpatient sex-offender treatment and had Brown as a client.
Found with 15-year-old
Brown, who had a previous probation violation, was sentenced to 48 months with 10 years conditional release for criminal sexual conduct with a 15-year-old girl whom he knew. The girl’s mother called St. Paul police after she opened the door of her daughter’s bedroom and saw her trying to pull the sheets over a man’s head. When the mother pulled back the sheets, she discovered Brown in the bed, wearing only boxer shorts, according to a criminal complaint.
When he got out of jail at the end of February 2015, Brown was homeless. He contacted Project Pathfinder to get treatment and filled out a request for a state grant to help with the cost. He was told, however, that he was expected to pay a $42 copay for each session, as well as a $200 outstanding balance. Brown looked for work, but found only temporary jobs at $200 to $300 a month, his attorney said.
A ‘pound of flesh’
At one point, Brown’s probation officer suggested that he sell his blood to cover the therapy costs. In a legal brief filed on Brown’s behalf, Withall evoked a scene from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” in which a moneylender sought “thy pound of flesh” as collateral for a debt.
“This reeks of trying to squeeze every last drop out of the guy,” Withall said.
Last June, a district judge revoked Brown’s probation for intentionally failing to enroll in treatment, noting it had been “specifically directed numerous times by his probation agent.” That meant Brown was immediately sent back to prison to serve the remainder of his four-year prison term. He is now confined at the state prison in Moose Lake.
“I am embarrassed by us as Minnesotans,” said Mary Moriarty, Hennepin County’s chief public defender. “Here you have a person who is living on the streets with nothing to eat, and you’re telling him that he has to sell part of his own body, his own plasma, to pay for treatment, instead of finding a roof over his head.”
In his dissent, Cleary cited the “challenges of homelessness and joblessness,” and referred to the suggestion that Brown sell blood to pay for treatment as “offensive.”
Cleary also argued it would make more sense for the state to pay for treatment and seek reimbursement from probationers after they finish. “By preventing indigent sex offenders from receiving sex offender treatment due to lack of funds, the state is undervaluing public safety,” Cleary wrote.
Minnesota is hardly the only state where sex offenders are expected to foot the bill for expenses. In 2013, Michigan passed a law requiring offenders to pay an annual $50 fee to help cover the cost of the state’s sex offender registry. An Alabama lawmaker has gone even further, introducing a bill this year that would require offenders to pay for their own surgical castration before being released from prison.
Attorneys for the state appellate public defender’s office are planning to petition the Minnesota Supreme Court to review the decision in Brown’s case.
Staff writer Andy Mannix contributed to this report.