Minnesota’s sex offender program is moving a record number of rapists, pedophiles and other convicted offenders through treatment and toward supervised release into the community, a top official testified Thursday as the state presented its side in a landmark trial challenging the program’s constitutionality.
In seven hours of testimony, the top clinician of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) disputed allegations that the state is failing a legal obligation to provide adequate treatment and a clear path for release to more than 700 offenders housed at high-security treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter.
A record 57 offenders have reached the third and final phase of treatment, which focuses on integrating offenders back into the community — a reflection, say state officials, that recent reforms have taken hold and offenders are responding to treatment. The share of offenders in the initial stage of treatment has fallen from 65 percent in early 2012 to 39 percent at the end of 2014, as more offenders progress in treatment.
Jannine Hebert, MSOP executive clinical director, attributed the sharp rise in offenders moving through treatment to better training and more frequent evaluations of offenders, among other changes. She also responded to criticism that some of the program’s treatment methods, including the use of a penile sensory device for measuring deviant sexual arousal, are not effective and impede offenders’ progress toward release.
“I would argue vehemently that MSOP is working constantly to move people and provide them with the tools to be successful …” Hebert said in her testimony. “Clients are changing and moving through the program.”
A federal lawsuit filed by a class of MSOP offenders has placed the state under intense legal pressure to demonstrate that it provides effective therapy, and is not just punishing offenders who have already served their prison terms. Federal courts have held that civil commitment programs can confine people indefinitely for therapeutic reasons, but not as punishment.
In its 20-year history, the MSOP has provisionally discharged three offenders; and no one has been completely released.
U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank, who is hearing the case, described the program as “clearly broken,” “draconian” and in need of immediate reform in a court order last year.
A panel of court-appointed experts reviewed the program last year and found a climate of “negativity, despair and hopelessness” at Moose Lake, with many offenders convinced they would never win release. The panel concluded that offenders with specialized needs, including severe mental illnesses, suicidal behaviors and intellectual disabilities suffered from a lack of attention and individualized treatment.
If Frank finds the program unconstitutional, he could order sweeping and politically difficult changes, including strict timelines for the release of offenders and a federal master to oversee the program.
Separately, a prominent Minnesota psychologist said Thursday that state officials are responding to issues raised by the judge and the lawsuit.
“It’s clear that [MSOP] is doing its best to adjust to what they see might be coming from the court,” said Dr. Michael Thompson, a psychologist and president of the Minnesota chapter of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA). “Overall, they are evaluating guys more frequently to see if [discharge] can happen earlier.”
In her testimony, Hebert defended some of the program’s more controversial practices, including a test known as a penile plethysmography, also known as a PPG. Using sensors attached to the penis, the PPG measures arousal by tracking blood flow.
Clinicians at MSOP monitor the device while having an offender listen to someone describe a sexual scenario and view certain images related to the offender’s deviant tendencies. An offender with a history of molesting children, for instance, might be shown images of young boys.
Though use of the PPG is common in sex offender treatment, the panel of court-appointed experts recommended that it not be required for progression at MSOP. Hebert argued that the test is an accepted tool for testing sexual deviance — one of the strongest predictors of recidivism — and can also reveal urges that are not evident in a person’s history of sexual offenses.
Hebert also responded to criticism that MSOP was needlessly holding offenders back because of rule violations unrelated to their sexual offense history. In an earlier phase of the trial, offenders testified that they were written up for violations as minor as sharing food, masturbating or missing worship service.
Hebert argued that such rule violations should be tracked because they can reflect “anti-sociality,” another key predictor of recidivism.
“If someone has deviant arousal patterns and is invested in holding on to those deviant arousal patterns … then I don’t believe they should be provisionally discharged into the community,” Hebert said.
The trial, now in its fourth week, is scheduled to last through March 27.