Unlike a criminal sentence, which has a defined end, involuntary (“civil”) commitment in Minnesota has meant indefinite and even lifetime detention. Since the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) was established in 1994, only one person has been granted unconditional discharge; just 14 have been approved for release under strict supervision.
In 2015, federal Judge Donovan Frank ruled MSOP unconstitutional. A court of appeals panel reversed that decision this week. What this means for MSOP’s 721 residents and for the communities into which they hope to someday reintegrate remains uncertain.
No equivalent program exists for other violent (but not sex) offenders, even murderers. Typically, those confined in MSOP have served their criminal sentences. A county attorney petitions for post-incarceration confinement based not on new offenses committed but on ones the person may commit in the future. Something like PreCrime in the film “Minority Report.”
I teach courses centered on culture. Media, fictional and nonfictional, tend to portray people who commit sex offenses as one-dimensional, monstrous others — a “them” radically different from “us.”
But there is more of “them” in “us” than we may prefer to acknowledge. Sex offenses take place regularly on college campuses and in our larger communities. The person most likely to harm one sexually is not a “them” but another “us” — an acquaintance, family member, dating partner. The vast majority of sex crimes never get reported.
I assume that each year my college (and every other) graduates men and some women whose past includes perpetrating sexual violence. These unreported offenders remain “us,” everyday citizens living and working in the community. Likewise, if we look closely even at “them” — the relative few whose sexual violence results in incarceration — we can see reflections of ourselves.
While doing research for a class on the justice system, I found an appeal of an MSOP commitment filed by a man I’ll call “Derek,” someone I had known relatively well in the 1980s. I grew up in Minnesota before relocating to Florida, another of the 20 states that allow post-incarceration confinement.
Derek’s family put me in touch with him. We speak by phone every week or two. Twice I have visited Derek at MSOP, each time listening for hours as clients shared their stories, music, artwork, and cooking.
Looking closely means I cannot shrink from their worst actions or minimize the harm they have caused. But it also means I can see their layers. MSOP clients love and are loved. They practice their faiths. They carry one another through monotony and hopelessness. They work. Their bodies age. They grieve conversations not had, birthdays missed, the deaths of family and friends.
MSOP clients know and love people victimized by sexual violence, Many, including Derek, have experienced such violence themselves.
I doubt anyone in my life has engaged in more self-examination than Derek. Despite the despair that comes with indefinite confinement, he works the program, attending weekly Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings as well as individual and group therapy. Derek mentors men junior to him in the program and has completed dozens of treatment modules, ranging from Relapse Prevention to Repairing Harm.
What’s the “Relapse Prevention” plan for all the unreported offenders out there, including those among our college graduates?
Knowing what I do now, if a graduate of involuntary confinement moved in next door, I would actively invest in the success of that person’s recovery. I would do what I could to shore up the graduate’s support infrastructure, especially close relationships and employment. I would intervene if I saw others mistreat that person. In the end, I would feel much safer living near an MSOP graduate than an unreported, untreated offender.
Though the appeals court sided with the status quo, we still can use its ruling as an invitation to look deeply into MSOP, our culture, ourselves. What if MSOP became an alternative to incarceration rather than an infinite addendum? What if we created similar alternatives for other violent offenders? What if we infused our culture’s institutions (family, education, media, workplaces, houses of worship) with MSOP’s anti-violence message?
Lisa M. Tillmann is a professor of critical media and cultural Studies at Rollins College in Orlando, Fla.