Monday, June 16, 2008
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At times, you can spot the moment when a public-affairs pendulum hits the top of its arc and swings back.
In Minnesota, that moment likely came last week in the important matter of civil commitment of sex offenders. A thought-provoking series in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis showed that those who enter the civil-commitment system basically never come out.
That’s too harsh an outcome for reasons that the series makes clear. Reforms are inevitable; the question is, will they be made by lawmakers or by the courts?
They should be crafted in the Legislature, not the courtroom. Because court-ordered releases simply would ensure that the pendulum would swing too far to the other side.
The Star Tribune’s series masterfully reports a program that was started with good intentions but has grown out of control.
“In the 14 years since Minnesota’s Sexually Dangerous Persons Act cleared the way for the state to detain hundreds of paroled sex offenders in prison-like treatment centers, just 24 men have met what has proved to be the only acceptable standard for release,” the series by Star Tribune reporter Larry Oakes begins.
Minnesota now has 544 men and one woman behind razor wire as a result of sex-offender civil commitments — nearly one of every seven nationwide, and the most nationally per-capita.”
The patients have completed their prison sentences, the story explains. “They are being detained for the stated purpose of treating them until they are no longer dangerous.”
But the detentions are amounting to life sentences without parole, given that “the program can’t point to the successful treatment of a single offender.”
Furthermore, “each ‘patient’ costs taxpayers $134,000 a year.” The program “deals with less than 3 percent of Minnesota’s 20,000 predatory offenders but consumes more than half of what the state spends yearly to control and track them. …
“The MSOP’s budget, which has tripled since 2004, is more than seven times the amount the state spends to monitor the 3,500 sex offenders on probation. The state spends less to keep 31 offenders on electronic home monitoring each year than it does to keep just one offender in the MSOP. …
“The MSOP’s population surged past all similar programs except California’s, which has 703 hospitalized offenders in a state with a population six times greater than Minnesota’s.”
In contrast, North Dakota’s civil commitment program released four patients in the past three months. That leaves 53 sex offenders still in residence at the state hospital in Jamestown, the Jamestown Sun reported last week.
Here’s the rub: One or more of the four patients released may reoffend. That’s the risk North Dakota is taking; and the risk is real, given that no treatment program ever has shown anything close to a 100 percent success rate.
And that’s the risk Minnesota is avoiding, partly in response to Dru Sjodin’s abduction and slaying by a released sex offender in 2003.
But there are reasonable ways to better society’s odds. Monitoring is one. Wearing a GPS bracelet wouldn’t persuade every released patient not to reoffend. But it would persuade some, and it’s one way of lowering recidivism risks.
Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., Sjodin’s killer, never should have been released. But not every patient in Minnesota’s civil commitment system is a potential Rodriguez. Lawmakers in other states have better balanced society’s need for both security and civil liberties. Minnesota lawmakers should do the same.
— Tom Dennis for the Herald