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Governor Mark Dayton and MN Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson

Elizabeth Flores, Dml - Star Tribune

READ THE LETTER

By Kurt Zellers, Matt Dean


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The respected state Office of the Legislative Auditor released a detailed report last March about Minnesota's sex offender program. To read it, go to www.startribune.com/a1026.


Editorial: Keep politics out of sex offender release

  • February 7, 2012 - 7:55 PM

It's no surprise that the state's first judicial discharge of a civilly committed sex offender would prompt questions about the decisionmaking behind the man's upcoming release.

But it's critical that Minnesota politicians keep the rhetoric under control and the volume of debate at a reasonable level.

Otherwise the state will never be able to responsibly change course on its costly and potentially unconstitutional policy of locking up some sex offenders for treatment years after they've served their sentences.

A troubling Feb. 6 letter signed by two Republican legislative leaders suggests that the fragile political "no-fly" zone reached on this toxic topic after years of demagoguery -- from politicians in both parties -- could be breached.

The letter to Gov. Mark Dayton from House Speaker Kurt Zellers and House Majority leader Matt Dean demanded further details about the official determination that Clarence Opheim, a 64-year-old convicted pedophile, is fit for supervised release.

Those are fair questions. Opheim has been civilly committed since the controversial program's beginning in 1994. His release, expected in about two months, would mark the first time that Minnesota has successfully treated a patient.

Zellers and Dean also note that Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson recently changed her opinion on Opheim's fitness for release. Jesson, who recently went from opposing the release to not opposing it, said Tuesday that she made her decision based on additional information from outside experts.

While Jesson appears to have done her due diligence on this, and has previously rejected another offender's release, more details about her decision wouldn't hurt.

But the letter from Zellers and Dean also needlessly attempts to score political points. It breathlessly states that releasing Opheim in a "densely populated urban area" is "reckless." It also unfairly implies that this was Jesson's decision to make.

The reality: A three-judge panel made the decision after weighing various expert analyses and recommendations. In addition, the state is not simply going to dump Opheim on a St. Paul sidewalk and drive off without even a look in the rear-view mirror.

Opheim would live in a St. Paul halfway house that is staffed 24 hours a day and licensed by the Minnesota Department of Corrections, according to a Feb. 3 Star Tribune story. He would also wear an electronic ankle bracelet for monitoring, attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and continue to receive outpatient treatment at St. Paul's respected Project Pathfinder program.

Is there risk with Opheim's release? Absolutely.

While he has hit all the treatment benchmarks required for patients in Minnesota's program, according to his attorney, no one can guarantee that he won't offend again. The Editorial Board  shares the unease that comes with his release, but there are no guarantees that any criminal let out of prison will forever be crime-free.

Still, Opheim's looming release is an attempt to balance public safety with the growing concerns about the civil-commitment program's unsustainable costs and suspect constitutionality. Minnesota, which has not successfully released a patient until this point, is an outlier even among the limited number of states with these programs.

In addition, it now costs the state about $120,000 a year to house and treat each offender -- a much higher price tag than imprisonment. With the number of offenders in the program predicted to nearly double by 2020 to more 1,100, the program is a serious financial burden on the state.

Moreover, there are rising concerns about a legal challenge to the program -- a concern highlighted by a respected law professor less than three weeks ago at a William Mitchell College of Law symposium.

That gathering of experts and politicians from both parties was notable for its constructive discussion. Other states, including Texas, have found more cost-efficient and constitutionally solid ways to protect the public from sex offenders.

Minnesota needs cool, collaborative leadership to find a workable resolution. The Zellers and Dean letter is an unfortunate reminder of the politics that helped create this policy quagmire.

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