Minn. releases sex offender

Published 9:52 am Friday, February 24, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS — A man who molested 29 boys, using soda and snacks to lure some to his home, will soon become the first sex offender to walk out of Minnesota’s civil commitment program in more than a decade, a milestone for a program that has been criticized as a life sentence disguised as treatment.

Clarence Opheim’s upcoming move to a halfway house is raising concerns in a state where the handling of sex offenders has long been a politically charged issue. But with the program facing constitutional challenges, some say it’s time to begin releasing people who have made progress in treatment.

“It would be simpler for the administration, for us, for society to just lock people up forever,” Gov. Mark Dayton said in an interview with The Associated Press earlier this month. “But it’s not legal, and I don’t even think it’s moral.”

Not everyone agrees. At a recent legislative hearing, some Republican lawmakers questioned why one of Dayton’s commissioners didn’t oppose Opheim’s provisional discharge.

“We should have a law in the state — locked up for life, no chance for parole and/or the death penalty,” Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, said.

Minnesota has never successfully discharged a sex offender from its commitment program. In the program’s 19 years, one other man was freed with conditions in 2000, but was taken back into custody on a violation.

The program targets dangerous sex offenders deemed most likely to strike again. It allows the state to pursue civil commitment as they near the end of their prison sentence and a court decides whether to commit. Through Jan. 1, 635 sex offenders — about 3 percent of those in the state — had been committed.

Minnesota’s program exploded after the 2003 abduction and slaying of Dru Sjodin, a 22-year-old North Dakota college student, by a sex offender who had been freed after serving 23 years in prison for an assault and attempted abduction. Prison authorities hadn’t sought to commit the man before his release.

Eric Janus, dean of William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul and an expert on the commitment law, said the program has always been politically difficult. Lawmakers feel pressure to cut costs — the sex offender program costs $317 per patient per day, compared with about $85 per day for an ordinary prisoner — but no one wants the wrong person released on his watch. The previous governor, Tim Pawlenty, issued an executive order in 2003 discouraging discharges.

Several challenges to the Minnesota law are pending in federal court, with attorneys arguing the program is unconstitutional. A judge has put the cases on hold while attorneys seek class-action status.

Commitment laws have withstood legal challenges when it could be shown their purpose was treatment, not detention. Some lawmakers say that’s where Minnesota’s law is vulnerable.

“If we never let anybody out, we don’t have a real treatment program, we just have an incarceration program,” said Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester. “You can never get rid of all risks.”

A 2010 legislative audit cited several reasons why Minnesota hasn’t released anyone, including staffing issues that likely affected the progress of some offenders. Minnesota also has a tougher standard for release, requiring offenders to complete treatment before officials will endorse discharge. The audit said some states allow for discharge if an offender simply no longer meets criteria for commitment.

That audit also criticized several elements of the program, including inconsistent treatment and not enough of it. Dennis Benson, the program’s executive director, said his staff has worked hard to address issues in the report — including hiring more people. He defended treatment, saying it is tailored to each person and is sound.

Some other states have had success releasing offenders. Wisconsin has placed 96 people on supervised release since 1995 — although 38 of them had their release revoked. Texas operates its program on an out-patient basis.

State officials point out Opheim, 64, isn’t actually leaving the program. He’s been given a provisional discharge, meaning he can be snapped up for violating any of 32 conditions.

At a halfway house in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, Opheim will be monitored via GPS and visits and phone calls will be logged, Benson said. He will continue to get sex offender treatment, with possible support group meetings, and his progress will be monitored. He will have daily visits from a program staffer, and could be placed under surveillance.

Opheim already lives under similar conditions in housing outside the razor wire surrounding the state treatment facility in St. Peter. He moves freely about the campus, but requires an escort to move about the community — a condition that would continue at the halfway house for the foreseeable future, Benson said.

“We will always have some kind of control over what he does, where he lives, for probably the remainder of his life,” Benson said.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said Opheim is not about to be followed by a flood of other sex offenders.

Since 2008, only nine other people have advanced to the final phase of treatment. And many hurdles remain for them: They need the support of their treatment team, the approval of a special review board and the approval of a Supreme Court appeals panel. Many of the nine are just beginning the final phase.

Sjodin’s mother, Linda Walker, called Opheim’s release disturbing. In the years since her daughter’s murder, Walker has traveled nationwide to raise awareness about sex offenders. She doesn’t believe they can be cured.

“They are very good at what they do and their main fear is being caught. They want to continue to do what they are doing,” she said.