Oct. 20: Facing lawsuit, Minnesota asks: When are sex offenders safe for release?

  • Article by: DAN BROWNING , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 2, 2013 - 10:04 PM

Facing suit by sex convicts, state wants to balance treatment, safety.

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Robin Benson, DHS deputy general counsel, spoke at a recent meeting about the program in St. Paul.

Photo: JERRY HOLT, Star Tribune

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Moving to head off a federal takeover of Minnesota’s sex-offender treatment program, state officials are on the verge of loosening the shackles for some offenders once deemed too dangerous or psychotic to be freed.

In coming months, the state Department of Human Services hopes to transfer some offenders housed in high-security facilities at Moose Lake and St. Peter to less restrictive settings — and perhaps to provisional discharge in the community. U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank, who is overseeing a class-action lawsuit filed by several offenders last year, has signaled that the state has little choice unless it wants the court to step in.

The problem is, no one knows definitively when a sex offender has been successfully treated.

No one wants to be held responsible for releasing another Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., who was out of prison just six months when he kidnapped and killed University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin in 2003.

Sjodin’s killing precipitated changes in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP), which takes offenders who have finished their prison sentences but are deemed by a judge too dangerous to release. The number of offenders committed each year has tripled since then — to about 50 a year — and Minnesota now has the highest per capita rate of sex-offender commitments among 20 comparable states.

“It’s almost inconceivable that the Minnesota sex offender population is more dangerous than any other state’s. It’s also inconceivable that they became three times more [dangerous] after this horrible, horrible thing happened to this child,” said James Rosenbaum, a former federal judge who is co-chairing a special task force studying reforms.

Its recommendations are due Dec. 1, and Rosenbaum said it’s the most difficult problem he’s ever tackled.

“You don’t want them in your neighborhood. I don’t want them in my neighborhood,” he said. “But we release other sex offenders every day. We release murderers every day. It is very difficult to maintain the system we have in place and respect the Constitution at the same time.”

Hopeless?

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld civil commitment of dangerous sex offenders as long as they are receiving treatment designed to return them safely to the community.

At its two MSOP campuses, Minnesota offers cognitive therapy and behavior modification to more than 700 residents, all but one of whom are men. To date, though, just one has succeeded in obtaining a “provisional discharge,” with intensive supervision and location monitoring in the community. No one has been discharged entirely.

“If nobody ever gets out, is this really a plan for treatment?” said Dan Gustafson, a Minneapolis attorney representing offenders in the class-action suit.

The lawsuit portrays a grim life inside MSOP facilities, which are more like prisons than hospitals. The offenders say that most of their time is unstructured and that they are subject to arbitrary restrictions and punishments. Their mail is read, their newspapers censored. Treatment progresses at a glacial pace through three phases. The result is a pervasive sense of “hopelessness, powerlessness and fear,” the suit says.

“This is much like Guantanamo Bay,” Gustafson said, referring to the U.S. detention facility for terrorism suspects in Cuba. “It’s easy to have the political will to put someone in, but it’s hard to let them out.”

Last spring, the Minnesota Senate passed a bill to reform the MSOP by modeling it after programs in New York and Wisconsin. Companion legislation faltered in the House.

“There’s a lot of political gain [in] making one group or another look like they’re soft on sex offenders,” said bill sponsor Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, who hopes to resurrect it in 2014.

Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson isn’t waiting. She’s already seeking contractors to set up less-restrictive housing and treatment programs around the state and has taken steps to speed up transfer petitions.

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