The first person granted a provisional discharge from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program likely will never live on his own, the head of the program told legislators on Wednesday.
"I can't imagine it. From the time he moves into the halfway house in St. Paul, he will be under intense scrutiny [and] it probably will never end," said Dennis Benson, head of the program for the Department of Human Services. "I doubt he will ever be released."
Program officials testified before a House committee after several House leaders said they were "dismayed" that Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson did not oppose a judicial decision earlier this month granting child abuser Clarence Opheim the state's first provisional discharge from the program.
Opheim, 64, served 4 1/2 years in prison and 18 years in the sex-offender program and, Benson said, achieved the maximum benefit from the program, where judges send particularly dangerous sex offenders after they have completed their prison sentences.
When Opheim leaves the program at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter, Benson said, he will be accompanied everywhere he goes, wear a GPS locator, be required to attend intensive counseling and AA meetings, face periodic drug and polygraph tests, have a one-on-one case worker at the halfway house for at least a month, and be tracked and spied on.
"There is never a 100-percent guarantee of safety," Benson said after the hearing, "but we believe he will be under such close scrutiny that if he makes a mistake, it will be a small one," and even that would send him back into the locked program.
Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud, who heads the Health and Human Services Reform Committee holding the hearing, said members might explore legislation requiring that neighbors of the halfway house be notified when offenders like Opheim move in. Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, urged the committee and Jesson to support a bill requiring that sex offenders be locked away for life or executed.
But for the most part, legislators seemed to accept Jesson's and Benson's explanation that Opheim, despite his horrendous crimes, had met program requirements.
The state faces lawsuits from offenders in the program who argue that they unconstitutionally have been locked in a program from which it has been impossible to achieve release. Jesson and Benson said concerns over the lawsuits had nothing to do with Opheim's provisional discharge, noting that they opposed the release of offender John Rydberg at a hearing last year.
Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253