Treatment, or shadow prison system?

  • Article by: Nancy Barnes
  • Editor, Star Tribune
  • March 23, 2011 - 4:44 PM

Larry Oakes, our longtime northern Minnesota correspondent, regularly drives through Moose Lake, home to one of the state's treatment centers for sexual offenders. He has seen the place grow over time, and he became curious about who was in there and why.

That curiosity led to a three-part series, starting today, exploring why Minnesota has become the nation's leader in civil commitments of men who have completed their prison sentences but have been judged to pose an ongoing risk for sexual violence. On a per capita basis, Minnesota has more offenders in its Sex Offender Program (MSOP) than any other state and is second in raw numbers only to California, which has six times the population.

One major reason: Unlike other states with similar systems, no one in Minnesota has been released from treatment.

That raises some important questions about whether this is really a treatment program or a shadow prison system.

This project was not particularly popular in our newsroom. No one wants to see another case like that of Dru Sjodin, who was murdered in 2003 by a recently released sex offender. Her case resulted in a surge in the number of offenders sent to the program. Earlier that year, controversy over the possibility of someday easing certain offenders back into the community prompted Gov. Tim Pawlenty to issue an order that no one be released unless required by law or by a court. That order still stands, and Pawlenty declined to answer questions about the system.

"There's a justifiable reaction to these crimes from the public and state officials -- never again," said Tom Buckingham, a senior editor who worked on this project. "But if the MSOP is supposed to be the answer to 'never again,' it has to have accountability and some demonstrable success. Otherwise, the courts could rule at some point that it's merely a parallel prison system that must be disbanded.''

I urge readers to put aside their emotional responses to the question of sex offenders -- I respond that way myself -- and read these stories to get a true understanding of what is happening here. If our society wants to throw away the key, lawmakers and judges have that power. But in Minnesota, prisoners are being committed based on a consensus of psychologists. They are treated, with the stated goal of allowing them to reenter society, but never released. Meanwhile, the costs to taxpayers are staggering.

"We're questioning whether this is a smart way of dealing with sexual offenders," Oakes said. "Everyone knows sexual violence needs to be dealt with, but a lot of people who examine this program come away with pointed questions. The MSOP costs three times more than treatment given in prisons. So far, the treatment has never ended for anyone in the MSOP except when they die. It puts the taxpayer on the hook forever."

Oakes spent many months reporting this story. He faced difficulty getting information on the residents of the MSOP, because the state took the position that they were patients and thus their records were private. He had to go directly to the patients and ask them to release their records.

Last month -- after nearly two years of trying -- he was allowed to tour one of these facilities.

Many of the patients you will read about over these three days committed terrible crimes. None of us would want to see them on the streets again unless they receive successful treatment. But the parameters under which commitment is allowed are expanding, raising the prospect of an ever-widening population locked up indefinitely.

Some patients have been detained, first in prison and then in the MSOP, since they were juveniles. And two didn't actually commit a sex crime -- they are there for sexual obsession and stalking and the fear that they could rape or molest someone.

Oakes has covered some heinous crimes involving sexual offenders -- he knows the danger they create for society. "I've seen the damage that predators can do. ... I don't feel sympathetic to them. It's the system that needed examination, not because it is treating sex offenders poorly, but because of the effect on taxpayers and because of the legal template it creates. It can grow into something larger."

Everyone fears that someone released from the MSOP could commit a new crime. Our role in reporting this project is not to suggest that this fear is unfounded; it's to raise questions about the way the state has responded to it.

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