Margretta Dwyer understands well the moral, legal and practical implications of dealing with sex offenders. But she hopes that Minnesota legislators working to revamp the civil commitment program also consider something else:
“I’m not saying sex offending is OK. I’m not saying be easy on them,” Dwyer said this week. “I’m saying there are ways we can help that are better than what we’re doing. Education, support, compassion.”
Dwyer, a licensed psychologist, has worked with hundreds of sex offenders over several decades, including 17 years as director of the sexual offender treatment program at the University of Minnesota Medical School. Now 78, she continues her research, public speaking and testifying in court.
Dwyer wants us to legislate on facts, instead of fear. Her exhaustive research reveals surprises that may help legislators as they revise civil commitments and referrals to prevent the feds from doing it for us. Among her findings: Most sex offenders don’t repeat their crimes and removing them from society long term isn’t always the best choice.
Last October, Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson appointed a bipartisan, 15-person Sex Offender Civil Commitment Task Force to revamp the state’s sex offender program to avoid a federal court takeover. Minnesota has the most sex-offender civil commitments, per capita, in the country, with about 680 men and at least one woman living in the Minnesota Sex Offenders Program (MSOP) in Moose Lake and St. Peter. Only two have been released.
The task force’s chairman, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, met recently with legislators to share findings and reiterate the urgent need to make changes. The committee wants to have its first recommendations ready by the end of the year. Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, a member of the task force, said she plans to introduce legislation soon that includes changes in commitment practices and offers less-restrictive treatment options.
“The Legislature,” Magnuson said Wednesday, “has a better idea now about what it has to do ... for the benefit of the state and those in the system.”
Dwyer has walked the line between the two groups for most of her professional life. She came to the Twin Cities in 1981 from Philadelphia where she was working on her doctorate. Before that, she worked as a marriage and family therapist for Catholic Charities.
When asked to run the U’s pioneering sex offender treatment program, she said, “I’m not trained in it.” Don’t worry, the clinic director told her. “Nobody is. Everyone is out there fishing. Go fish.”
The program, became “a gift from God to everybody,” she said. “Back then, they didn’t have commitment laws. Most people wanted treatment.”
Each year, a few hundred men, and some women, enrolled in the three-year program, many because of court orders. They attended group discussions and sessions with their spouses and children. They were required to attend seminars about healthy sexuality and a two-day conference on “sexual attitude readjustment.”
Some stayed the course, others dropped out early on, or after a year. Dwyer learned from all of them.
First, they all want to stop offending, she said. “I never met anybody who woke up in the morning and said, ‘Well, this will be fun.’ It was, ‘Please, God. Help me stop.’ ”
Most were able to do that, regardless of whether they completed the program. In one study, Dwyer followed 380 sex offenders for 23 years. The recidivism rate was less than 13 percent. Her separate, 30-year follow-up study of pedophiles revealed a re-offending rate of 15.7 percent.
“We need to know who is dangerous and who is not,” Dwyer said. “We’ve got it all mixed up so that everybody’s dangerous.”
That belief leads to panic, and shaming, which doesn’t work. Dwyer eschews inflammatory language (monster, predator, pervert, sicko) not only because it dehumanizes, but because it leads to the opposite of society’s desired outcome.
“Lack of empathy plays a major role in people perpetuating these sexual behaviors,” said Dwyer, author of “Understand Offending: Unveiling Myths; Seeking Sexual Health.”
“Once we shame them, they’re likely to re-offend.”
She said it is also false that longer confinements lead to fewer repeat offenses. “No evidence exists to support this idea,” Dwyer said. “It is even possible that longer terms of incarceration increase the likelihood of re-offending, as the offender may begin to take on a criminal persona.”
Regardless, we make re-entry incredibly difficult, she said. Many at MSOP have lost their support systems, and will struggle to find housing and a job.
“A lot of them have been in there so long that they’ve lost their social skills and ability to integrate into society.”
One example is Chris Jackson, 34, who has been in MSOP since his 19th birthday. He was told he’d be there three years. Sexually abused repeatedly as a boy, he then sexually abused a relative and has been locked up, first in juvenile facilities, since he was 12. He’s passed several treatment programs at MSOP but is losing hope of ever getting out. If he does, he worries about his lack of life skills and finding a job.
“I’ve never had to pay bills,” he said. “We learn how to solve arguments here, but not how to communicate with people.”
His grandfather, Ron Jackson, thinks a halfway house would be best for Chris. By setting him free without a thoughtful plan, Ron said, “he’d be eaten alive.”
It’s stories like this that keep Dwyer doing the work she does, and hoping the task force and the Legislature are listening. “It’s a good thing they’re meeting,” she said. “But we’re more into punishment and revenge. If it’s good for me to have you locked up, let’s lock you up. Until I find out one day that it’s my own son.”