Editorial: Offender program needs new look

Published 8:47 am Thursday, February 16, 2012


No one was happy with the news that a judicial board approved the first release of a sex offender from the state’s sexual predator treatment program.

There is obvious reason for safety concerns upon the supervised release of Clarence Opheim, a 64-year-old convicted pedophile.

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But the partisan political rhetoric at the state Capitol is not helpful. Instead, it’s time for a reasoned discussion of improving the civil commitment process.

Opheim has been held in the St. Peter Sex Offender program since 1994 when the program was started. He and nearly 700 other sex offenders have been civilly committed by the courts to facilities in St. Peter and Moose Lake.

When a review panel determined Opheim had been successfully treated and should be put on closely supervised release in a St. Paul group home, the state Human Services commissioner offered no opposition to the order.

State Republican leaders, in a letter to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, decried the review panel’s decision and criticized the administration for not fighting it.

But the program was specifically designed by lawmakers to allow for the release of those deemed successfully treated. The program is not punishment and is not part of the criminal justice system. Sex offenders are only committed by courts after they have served all of their prison time.

The program is on shaky constitutional ground exactly because no one has been released in its 17-year existence. Attorneys for those held there have reasonably argued that society can’t simply use a civil process to incarcerate people for life after they’ve served their criminal sentences.

While attempting to treat those sex offenders who have a very high risk of offending again is in the public’s interest, the Minnesota program is in need of reform.

For starters, the program is prohibitively costly — $120,000 per year per offender, which is much more costly than imprisonment.

And the program has grown dramatically with the number of commitments expected to double in the next eight years.

The rapid increase is likely due in part to the fact that county attorneys across the state make the decision on whether to attempt to civilly commit an offender. That puts undue political pressure on county attorneys who could face criticism of being soft by not seeking commitments more often.

Better would be a state panel of experts who could review and evaluate offenders to determine if civil commitments should be sought.

The Legislature also can review how other states have crafted better commitment programs that have withstood constitutional challenge and are much cheaper than Minnesota’s.

Instead of political vitriol, state lawmakers need to engage in a serious discussion about changing the sex offender program.

— Mankato Free Press, Feb. 13

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