MN Sex Offender Program costs $70 million a year but rehabilitates no one

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By any reasonable standard the Minnesota Sex Offender Program has been an unmitigated failure. In its nearly two decades, it has failed to rehabilitate a single patient. The only people who have graduated from the program have done so in body bags. Since its establishment in 1993, at least 26 patients have died while civilly committed to the program.

“It’s like a roach motel,” says Phil Duran, an attorney with OutFront Minnesota, who has been an advocate for individuals committed to the program. “People check in, but they never check out.”

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his Republican allies in the Legislature have repeatedly stated that spending on health and human services programs is out of control. He returned to the theme last week in announcing a proposal for an amendment to the state constitution to cap spending. “The health and human services budget is growing at rates that are just absolutely unsustainable,” Pawlenty stated.

But while politicians rail against the purported runaway costs of welfare spending and slash health insurance for some of the state’s poorest residents, the program with the most rapidly rising cost never merits mention.

Since 2003 the budget for the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) has increased by almost 400 percent, mushrooming from $18.5 million annually to $71.6 million in just six years. The program is a budgetary black hole, but legislators don’t seem to care.

“It’s very difficult to get people to engage on it,” says Linda Berglin, who chairs the Health and Human Services Budget Division, and has sought changes to the MSOP for years. “Nobody wants to be associated with sex offenders. Nobody wants to be responsible for something that might cause a problem later on.”

But while the MSOP is largely ignored during budgetary debates, it recently garnered headlines because of the controversial purchase of two dozen flat-screen televisions for the facility in Moose Lake where the bulk of the patients reside. After the purchase details were outlined in the Star Tribune, Pawlenty immediately ordered that the televisions be removed. The plasma screens are now to be utilized by veterans’ homes and the Minnesota National Guard.

The televisions, however, are a fiscal red herring. Even at the extravagant cost of $2,282 to purchase and install each screen, they represent a rounding error in the overall cost of the sex offender program.

MSOP population mushroomed following Sjodin murder

The reason for the skyrocketing cost of the MSOP is simple: The number of sex offenders civilly committed to the program has surged dramatically in recent years. In 2003 there were 199 men (there are no women) being held at facilities in St. Peter and Moose Lake. But in the ensuing six years the population has nearly tripled, with 547 sex offenders currently being held for an indeterminate period of time. Each person enrolled in the program costs the state $134,000 annually.

The timing of this explosion in cost and sex offender commitments is by no means coincidental. In November 2003, Dru Sjodin, a 22-year-old college student, was murdered by a sex offender named Alfonso Rodriquez, Jr., who had been released from prison earlier that year after serving 23 years for stabbing and attempting to kidnap a woman. He also had a previous conviction for rape.

In the wake of that high-profile crime, the Minnesota Department of Corrections began referring all Level III sex offenders – those deemed most likely to commit additional crimes – due to be released for consideration of commitment. In addition, Pawlenty ordered that no civilly committed sex offenders be released unless required by law or ordered to do so by the courts. Under state law, the authority to provisionally release an offender who has met all the treatment requirements rests with a three-judge panel.

The ramifications of these changes were twofold: the pool of offenders being considered for civil commitment was dramatically expanded, and the odds of patients being released from the program were greatly reduced.

“Before Rodriguez the referrals that we were getting as examiners were really very, very dangerous sex offenders,” says Paul Reitman, a forensic psychologist who has screened candidates for civil commitment for roughly two decades. “Typically they had 10, 15, 20 victims.”

In some instances, individuals who have never committed violent offenses have gotten swept up in the program. The changes implemented to the program have also increased the number of people facing civil commitment who have only committed crimes as juveniles or suffer from developmental disabilities.

“We started getting a whole different group of people,” says Reitman.

So what exactly is Minnesota getting for its $70 million-a-year sex offender program? Duran, of OutFront Minnesota, doesn’t believe the MSOP has any credible means of treating patients. He points out that in response to the flat-screen television flap, the head of the program argued that the large-screen televisions were part of the treatment program.

“Then there are millions of Minnesotans every night who receive sex offender treatment,” Duran notes. “Who knew? If that’s the quality of decision making, then you know something’s wrong.”

Duran further points out that residents of the facilities are subjected to rules that even the most diligent patient would find exasperating to follow. For instance, he says, a ban on physical contact even extends to a prohibition on shaking hands.

“Shaking hands? That is a dangerous activity?” he wonders. “Help me understand in what context that makes sense.”

The systemic problems with the program are not a new development. But Berglin notes that primary oversight rests with the Minnesota Department of Human Services and that the Legislature’s authority is somewhat limited.

Last legislative session, for instance, Berglin sought what she thought was a fairly anodyne change. She introduced a bill that would have allowed felons facing potential civil commitment to voluntarily remain in prison until they had completed a sex-offender treatment program, thus potentially decreasing the chances that they’ll be subject to indefinite detainment.

“The Department of Corrections went bonkers,” she recalls. “They just went ballistic. I could not get that bill out of the judiciary committee because of the extreme position of the Department of Corrections.”

Little political will to reform program

Even when legislation has been pushed through it’s proven ineffective in breaking the patient logjam. Two years ago Berglin sponsored legislation changing the administrative process through which civilly committed sex offenders can be released. The sign-off previously had to come from the top official at the Minnesota Department of Human Services, a political appointee. Under the new legislation, the final call on whether a patient is released after completing treatment is made by a three-judge panel. But it made no difference in whether individuals were ultimately released.

Reitman and others stress that lower-cost alternatives exist that would be just as effective in protecting the public from people who have committed heinous crimes. In states such as Wisconsin, Washington and Texas, for instance, sex offenders have routinely been released from civil commitment programs and not committed additional crimes. The key to success: intensive supervision and continued treatment. If the offenders fail to follow through on any aspects of their therapy plan, they again lose their freedom.

“The research tells us that what really keeps these guys from sexually recidivating is being under intensive supervision,” says Reitman. “In reality the treatment model is there for us to follow.”

Margretta Dwyer, a former head of the sexual therapy program at the University of Minnesota, agrees that much cheaper alternatives exist to effectively treat sex offenders. She notes that it costs the state $134,000 annually to keep an offender civilly committed. “You could hire two guards in 12 hours shifts for $50,000 per year, per person and still save money,” she says.

But Dwyer believes the will to have a meaningful discussion about how to effectively deal with sex offenders is lacking at every level of the government. “Everyone’s afraid,” she says. “Every judge is afraid to step forward. Every representative and senator is afraid to step forward.”