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Rosenblum: Let’s not lose focus, traction on sex-offender program

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM
  • Star Tribune
  • November 19, 2013 - 8:10 PM

Gov. Mark Dayton’s abrupt suspension last week of the provisional release of sex offenders was, fortunately, just a temporary stop for a forward-moving train.

Many thoughtful Minnesotans, including members of the Sex Offender Civil Commitment Advisory Task Force, continue working overtime to remedy one of the most intractable and emotional issues facing our state. Let’s keep supporting them.

Reacting to protests last week around the proposed release of serial rapist Thomas Duvall, Gov. Dayton directed the Department of Human Services (DHS) to oppose any future petitions by sex offenders until legislators review Minnesota’s civil commitment system. He also put on hold a move of about 12 civilly committed sex offenders to a small state-run facility in Cambridge.

Did politics play a role? Sure. Rep. Kurt Zellers, who called Dayton’s decision to not oppose Duvall’s discharge insensitive to survivors, is running for governor. Being tough on sex offenders wins votes.

Was fear understandable? Absolutely. Anxiety and anger are human reactions, particularly on the 10th anniversary of the murder of college student Dru Sjodin. Some likely felt a sickening sense of déjà vu as Duvall petitioned for release a decade after Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., a rapist just released from prison, killed Sjodin on Nov. 22, 2003.

But that tragedy largely got us what we have today, which is a bloated “transitional” treatment facility called the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP). Only one of nearly 700 “clients” has ever transitioned out. Responding to a class-action lawsuit filed by offenders, the federal courts demand that we fix the problem, or they’re going to step in.

“The governor just hit a pause button,” said DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson. “He’s very much looking forward to seeing the recommendations from the task force.”

As the state scrambles to protect both citizens’ safety and constitutional integrity, a few thoughts and clarifications.

First, DHS didn’t “pick” Duvall for release. If they did, I’d suggest a clean sweep of its public-relations department. Even those who are pushing hard for reform admit to queasiness that Duvall, who raped one of his victims as he hit her with a hammer, is the “poster child” for this hot-button issue. But Duvall is one of many MSOP residents who petition the Special Review Board (SRB) for provisional discharge annually.

“Petitioners request provisional discharge all the time and I don’t control that,” Jesson said. “His background is not dramatically different from the backgrounds we have of many others. On the other hand, he has gone through treatment that others haven’t.”

Facility not one-size fits all

While not dramatically different, a point not lost on the task force is that MSOP is not a one-size-fits-all facility. That means a singular strategy of treatment and release is unwise and unlikely to increase public safety.

It’s true that most residents of MSOP are repeat offenders, some charged with horrific crimes. A random sample of 50 men in treatment in 2010 revealed that 72 percent of that group had offended against children ages birth to 12.

But MSOP also houses 52 clients with no adult criminal convictions. Others are there as a result of dramatically disproportionate rates of commitments in different parts of the state.

Another 112 clients have been assigned to MSOP’s “alternative program” because of developmental disabilities or other limitations preventing them from advancing in the normal treatment program. Many likely would do well in supervised, and less costly, communal settings.

Yet, they’re all placed at the highest level of security and under the same petition process. Because of this, the task force’s preliminary recommendations include earlier identification of high-risk individuals, treatment that begins quickly after placement in a corrections environment, a centralized screening system that addresses statewide disparities and a two-part commitment process. That would mean a commitment decision first, then a placement decision after that.

Legislators, these are smart moves. Despite angst over this issue, it’s important to remember that, with the right treatments and strategies, recidivism among sex offenders is low. The Minnesota Department of Corrections reported in July that the repeat rate for civilly committed sex offenders, if released, would be between 5 and 16 percent over four years. Repeat rates are lowest among tightly watched Level III offenders, and are known to decrease dramatically with age.

Few stay motivated

But treatment takes time ­— an average of eight to 10 years — and intense motivation. Few are motivated at MSOP.

“When treatment is unending,” said Jon Brandt, a clinical social worker who has worked with Minnesota sexual offenders for more than 30 years, “can we expect clients to maintain endless motivation?”

After the program released its first offender last year, Jesson saw a jump in the number of people participating in treatment after his release. “They said, ‘OK, this could happen.’ ”

It’s counterintuitive, but helping offenders helps keep us safer. Brad, 54, a Level III sex offender, spent eight years in Moose Lake prison where, unlike at MSOP, treatment began almost immediately, five or six hours a day, five days a week, for three years. He learned about how to avoid triggers, about healthy sexuality and victim empathy.

The biggest impact came from meeting another prisoner who was abused as a child. “Listening to him, and what happened to him afterward, it was a lot worse than what I was telling myself about what I had done,” Brad said. After six months of evaluation in St. Peter, Brad decided he didn’t want to be that person anymore. He’s back in his community now, rebuilding relationships with his family, working full time and staying out of trouble.

 

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

612-673-7350

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