By Paul Demko
[name withheld] could spend his whole life confined to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program for actions he committed as a juvenile. And there are more than 50 others like him inside the walls of MSOP.
On May 5, 2001, [mother name withheld] discovered her 15-year-old son, [name withheld], inside the family’s van with his 9-year-old sister. His pants were around his knees and he had a visible erection. Under questioning, he admitted that he had been sexually molesting his sister.
[name withheld] was immediately pulled out of the family home. He was eventually ruled delinquent after being charged with criminal sexual conduct in the juvenile court system and ordered to Mille Lacs Academy for sex offender treatment. He was kicked out of the program after seven months because he lacked motivation, misbehaved and argued with staff.
Over the next three years, [name withheld] cycled through juvenile treatment facilities, making little headway in various programs. His progress was stymied, in part, by symptoms from what was eventually diagnosed as Asperger Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder characterized by extreme difficulties with social interaction.
One week before his 19th birthday, he was referred by the Anoka County Attorney’s Office for civil commitment as mentally ill and dangerous, a sexual psychopathic personality and a sexually dangerous person.
During the civil court hearing to determine whether he would be involuntarily detained, other episodes of [name withheld]’s sexual misconduct were detailed. According to court documents, he admitted molesting both of his younger sisters on multiple occasions going back to when he was just eight years old. In addition, he acknowledged sexual offenses against two younger boys in his neighborhood and a years-long habit of attempting to view children urinating in public bathrooms.
In September 2005, following a two-day trial, Anoka County District Court Judge Edward Bearse ordered that [name withheld] be civilly committed. Judge Bearse was blunt in his assessment of his prospects for being rehabilitated and released. “It would be safe to predict, after evaluating Respondent’s history in other treatment programs, that Respondent may not be responsive to treatment,” Bearse wrote in his order. “It would also probably be safe to say that Respondent has a very, very minute chance of successfully graduating from the Minnesota Sex Offender’s Program, but who knows — anything is possible.”
Bearse’s order has proven prescient. Seven years later, [name withheld] remains indefinitely detained at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. He has yet to complete the initial phase of the treatment program and isn’t currently participating in therapy.
When her son was first institutionalized at age 15, [mother name withheld] viewed it with relief. Dealing with such a severely troubled child had caused tremendous stress. The family had taken extraordinary measures to try to control his behavior, including the installation of motion detectors in the house to help monitor his movements. [mother name withheld] felt like she had neglected her two daughters because of the constant attention [name withheld] required.
“I was a frantic mother,” [mother name withheld] recalled. “Mostly I just wanted help for him … I wanted something, someone who might be able to diagnose him correctly, to help him correctly. That’s what we were hoping.”
Even [name withheld]’s commitment to the MSOP was initially viewed with weary resignation. “We were more worried about him hurting himself or somebody else,” [mother name withheld] recalls. “What do we do to keep him safe? Because we didn’t want him to go to prison. In the prison system, we knew that he would become a victim … We didn’t feel we had too much of a choice.”
But seven years later, [mother name withheld] and other family members are exasperated by the exceedingly bleak prospect that [name withheld], who is now 26 years old, will ever get the opportunity to live a life outside of the prison-like setting of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. They are convinced that there are less-restrictive settings where he could receive more appropriate treatment and present little threat to public safety. They also worry about how more than a decade of institutionalization has permanently altered him.
“I see discouragement,” said [grandmother name withheld], [name withheld]’s grandmother. “He says, ‘You know, Grandma, there’s a guy up here who sits in a wheelchair and drools all the time, and I feel like that’s what my life is going to be.’ And that’s pretty painful to hear.”
Long festering troubles for the MSOP
Minnesota has the highest per capita rate of civilly committed sex offenders in the country. Currently there are more than 650 individuals indefinitely detained as sexual deviants who cannot control their behavior. The program’s population has more than tripled over the past nine years, since the grisly murder of Dru Sjodin by a convicted sex offender released on parole, and is expected to double again in the next decade. (See related post)
No one was released from the program during the next eight-plus years. It wasn’t until this year that the program provisionally released one offender, a 64-year-old pedophile named [name withheld], back into the community. That lack of success at rehabilitating and releasing MSOP clients has caused increasing concern in recent years that the state is walking a dangerous legal tightrope.
“We in the Legislature, or by us writing law, seem to give someone that’s incarcerated in a civil commitment for sex offender actions an impression that they will get out if they can earn the cure, and we don’t have a track record of letting people out,” said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, chair of the Judiciary Committee. “If that’s a false impression, a court could come to the conclusion that that’s illegal.”
The troubles attending the MSOP are well documented, most thoroughly in a critical report by the Office of the Legislative Auditor released in 2011. What’s never been explored is the disturbing number of individuals like [name withheld] who have no adult criminal convictions but are nonetheless being indefinitely detained. Currently there are 52 individuals enrolled in the MSOP who meet this description — roughly 8 percent of its entire population. These individuals are potentially facing a de facto life sentence despite never having been convicted of a crime as an adult.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders on the grounds that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The treatment of juveniles civilly committed as sexual deviants in Minnesota seems to raise similar constitutional and moral concerns.
“It is an outrage,” said Eric Janus, dean of the William Mitchell College of Law and an expert on the civil commitment of sex offenders. “The problem with it is that we know that civil commitment is, at this stage, tantamount to life imprisonment. So these are people who, based on behavior that they exhibited as adolescents, are most likely going to be locked up for life. And that’s unconscionable.”