Facing high costs and a potential court fight, state considers supervised release of some chronic offenders.
A top state official said Tuesday that as many as seven chronic sex offenders could be shifted from long-term confinement to supervised release in the community, possibly within the year.
During a somber hearing at the Capitol, Dennis Benson, executive director of Minnesota's controversial sex offender program, told legislators the state must consider new strategies in the face of mounting costs and a potential court challenge to the 17-year-old program, now one of the largest in the nation.
The Star Tribune first reported Sunday that officials have recommended provisional release for two violent, repeat sex offenders who have completed treatment while confined at St. Peter -- the first time in some 15 years that the state had considered such discharges. No date has been set for review of the additional five offenders.
Public Safety Committee Chairman Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, seemed to speak for many legislators at the hearing when he said the news had delivered a shock to constituents and lawmakers.
"If this is the best of the worst, where in the world are we?'' Cornish asked in reference to the two offenders who could be released into Twin Cities halfway houses. "What in the world is the profile of the ones we're not releasing?''
Tuesday's hearing brought a fresh focus to pressures that have been simmering for years in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP): mounting costs, a potential court challenge to the practice of indefinite confinement, and political pressure to protect the public at all costs.
Separately, two DFL legislators who represent the St. Peter area said Tuesday they were offended to learn that a political appointee of Gov. Tim Pawlenty made major changes in a report on the program delivered to the Legislature early last month. On Tuesday, the Star Tribune reported that Cal Ludeman, then Pawlenty's commissioner of Human Services, admitted to redacting large portions of the report dealing with community treatment, supervised release and prevention.
"It is clear that Governor Pawlenty put a political filter between the nonpartisan experts in the state agencies and the policymakers that rely on that information to make critical decisions,'' said Rep. Terry Morrow, DFL-St. Peter.
Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, said Ludeman's actions "undermined trust'' at the Capitol and prevented lawmakers of both parties from making informed decisions based on the advice of professionals.
A Pawlenty spokesman declined to address the issue of Ludeman's redactions Tuesday but issued a statement saying, "Governor Pawlenty strongly supports keeping sex offenders locked up as long as possible."
Treating the incurable
The sex offender program, created by the Legislature in 1994 to confine chronic and dangerous offenders, currently holds 605 individuals at secure treatment centers in St. Peter and Moose Lake -- a population that has tripled since 2003 and is expected to double again in the next decade.
In his testimony Tuesday, Benson acknowledged that the Legislature faces tough decisions balancing the program's high costs and legal status against public anxiety. "We don't believe we can cure these people,'' said Benson, a career corrections executive who has run the MSOP for three years. He noted that the average offender in detention has committed some 16 separate sex crimes.
But Benson also said there are ways to minimize the risk to the public while strictly managing supervision of the offenders, using GPS tracking by ankle bracelet, random drug screens, polygraph tests, daily contact with field agents and continuing therapy.
Benson also urged lawmakers to balance the emotion of the topic against the need for fiscal responsibility. Minnesota spends more than $300 per offender per day to confine people in the MSOP, compared to less than $90 per day if they were under supervision of the state Department of Corrections, Benson said.
"If there is a cheaper but responsible way, let's take a look at this,'' he testified, mentioning a joint pilot program where the Corrections Department provides some clinical treatment. Benson noted that Wisconsin has experimented with supervised release on a modest scale, with eight to 15 offenders discharged under heavy supervision.
Benson said the sex offender program has about 125 "low functioning men'' who, if they were not convicted sex offenders, would probably be in adult foster care or group homes with around-the-clock supervision -- much cheaper alternatives.
In opening remarks Tuesday, Cornish set the tone for what is sure to be a contentious debate over clinical treatment as against long, mandatory prison sentences.
"The quandary of what to do with sex offenders is deciding whether they should be convicted and held under longer prison sentences or find a way to release a minimum [number] into the community under strict supervision,'' Cornish said. Reflecting on Sunday's news reports and the public's backlash, he added: "It's almost like [this program] is back to square one.''
Paul McEnroe • 612-673-1745