Minnesota sex offenders: Are they really the 'worst of the worst'?

  • Article by: CHRIS SERRES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 2, 2013 - 10:38 AM

The battle over the state Sex Offender Program raises questions over who gets out — and who gets put in.

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At the MSOP in Moose Lake, Michael Meyer has been fighting for his release. Sex offenders in the MSOP have been described as the "worst of the worst'' - violent predators too dangerous for public release. But records show that some have never even been convicted of a sex crime, some committed their last offenses as juveniles: many have records that are milder than convicted rapists who have been released from state prisons .

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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Eric Eischens has never been convicted of a crime, but he could spend the rest of his life behind razor wire.

Eischens, who is 19 and developmentally disabled, has confessed to sexually molesting at least six boys before he turned 14. On Nov. 7, a judge committed him to an indefinite term in Minnesota’s sex-offender treatment program.

Just months earlier, officials approved the provisional release of a violent serial rapist, Thomas Duvall, 58, who has admitted to attacking at least 60 women, including a 17-year-old girl he raped while hitting her with a hammer.

The divergent cases demonstrate the often arbitrary manner in which Minnesota treats rapists, pedophiles and other sex offenders deemed too dangerous to live in the community — and why state officials are now under pressure to overhaul the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).

Though often described as the “worst of the worst,” sex offenders in the MSOP’s prisonlike treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter are not all more violent or more likely to reoffend than those in the state prison system.

Some 52 of the 698 offenders currently in the program have never been convicted of an adult crime, according to state records. Some, like Eischens, are there based solely on acts they committed as juveniles. Many are guilty of less-serious crimes than the 326 “Level Three” sex offenders who have been released from prison and who now live in communities across the state.

“The system is broken, and it’s broken on many levels,” said Dr. Michael Farnsworth, a forensic psychiatrist from Nisswa, Minn., who designed the original MSOP in 1992. “We’re locking away people indefinitely without any consistent standards.”

That could soon change.

On Monday, a task force appointed by state Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson will release a series of recommendations that include the creation of a statewide panel to review all petitions for civil commitment to the MSOP and a biennial review of cases to find offenders who might be released under supervision without posing a public risk.

If adopted, the recommendations would counterbalance the authority of local judges to order sex offenders into indefinite confinement — a de facto life sentence for many offenders. Only one offender has ever been provisionally discharged in the MSOP’s 19-year history.

The task force’s final report also contains strong language opposing the commitment of offenders based solely on juvenile acts.

“It is utterly unconscionable that we are locking away young people with violent sex offenders who are older, bigger, stronger and more sophisticated,” said Fred Friedman of Duluth, chief public defender for northeastern Minnesota and a member of the task force. “The practice has to stop.”

Who goes in, who gets out

The proposed discharge of Duvall, together with a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of indefinite confinement, have set off a contentious debate over who gets discharged from the MSOP.

But the task force also has raised fundamental questions about who gets sent there.

Almost since the program’s inception in 1994, some observers have worried that it casts too wide a net, resulting in large costs to taxpayers with little measurable benefit.

The MSOP costs about $80 million a year — or $120,000 annually for each detained sex offender. That’s roughly three times the cost of confining offenders in prison. After a decade of explosive growth in the MSOP, Minnesota now has the largest number of civilly committed sex offenders per capita in the country.

Many attorneys who represent sex offenders blame Minnesota’s commitment law, which they argue is overly broad. According to state law, a person can be committed indefinitely without even being convicted of a sex crime.

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