In the Spotlight

News & Features
More from MPR
Your Voice
DocumentJoin the conversation with other MPR listeners in the News Forum.

DocumentE-mail this pageDocumentPrint this page
Minnesota's sex offender program faces many challenges
Minnesota has nearly 200 sex offenders committed to secure treatment facilities because they're considered sexually dangerous. It's unclear whether any will ever get out. Their fate is caught in a tangle of law, politics and medicine. Since spring, several psychiatrists have quit the program, patients are threatening a lawsuit and staff at the two centers say morale is at an all time low. Through it all, top program managers have been considering options for moving some patients out of security hospitals.

St. Paul, Minn. — Many of those in the treatment program have already served prison sentences for their crimes. They've been civilly committed because prosecutors convinced judges there's a high risk they would commit similar crimes again. Under civil commitment standards, the state has to provide treatment with the possibility of release.

Tom Sabo, 50,a patient at the Moose Lake facility, was committed to the program in 1993 straight from prison. The Minneapolis man says he's frustrated that no one has been released from the program.

"I believe that somewhere along the line I will get out," Sabo said. "I just don't think it will be through the good graces of the state of Minnesota. It would have to be through a legal battle way beyond my ability to fight."

Larger view
Image Attorney Eric Janus has concerns about the constitutionality of the treatment program.

Sabo and others in the program are not minor offenders. He's been convicted of two counts of first degree sexual misconduct. Hennepin County prosecutors accuse him of much worse. In Sabo's commitment papers, they contend Sabo raped a woman on the day he was released from his first prison sentence in 1983. They also say he committed other sexual assaults and admitted to raping at least 12 women.

The sex offender program has received considerable attention after a newspaper report in June. The story said officials were considering less secure treatment settings for offenders. DFLers accused the Pawlenty administration of considering the changes to save the state money.

Pawlenty angrily countered that the administration isn't changing policy or releasing any offenders. He later issued an executive order saying no one would be released from the program unless by a court order.

"The sex offender program is fraught with controversy," said state Forensic Director Michael Farnsworth, who oversees the sex offender population for the Department of Human Services.

Farnsworth has found himself at the center of that controversy. He proposed less secure treatment options for the sex offender population. He's scheduled to resign from his post at the end of September but says it has nothing to do with the recent controversy. Farnsworth says treating sex offenders can be difficult because legal requirements to treat patients conflict with public pressure to keep them locked up.

"No one seems to know, exactly, ultimately, what the disposition will be or what the positions of the various politicians that weigh in on it will be," Farnsworth said. "It's a lightening rod."

Larger view
Image Pam Lofquist says she has concerns about the morale of the staff at Moose Lake.

A patient is eligible for release after completing four treatment phases. A special review board then decides to recommend the release. The state human services commissioner can approve or deny the release. Patients and prosecutors can appeal the commissioner's decision to an appointed three-judge panel.

Several attorneys say Pawlenty's order undermines the constitutionality of the treatment program because it tells the human services commissioner to not let anyone out.

Eric Janus, an attorney and professor at the William Mitchell College of Law, says he and other attorneys are considering a lawsuit against the state. Janus also says he has concerns about the treatment program since no one has been released since the latest commitment procedures were created in 1994.

"The governor's order is one additional piece of evidence that this sex offender program is really about punishment," Janus said. "So even if he takes the order back, you can't unring the bell."

Some program staffers say the threat of lawsuits, the executive order and the resignation of several key officials within the program has damaged morale. Several employees at the Moose Lake facility say they're concerned about an increase in assaults on staff in the past year. Those employees declined to comment on tape for fear of losing their jobs. Pam Lofquist, president of Association of State, County and Municipal Employees local 1092 in Moose Lake, says the line staff in her union describe the situation as "volatile."

Larger view
Image Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno says the treatment program is the best in the nation.

"I can't stress enough how much the morale has gone down there," Lofquist said. "The fears of the staff that are working there. They're not working in a safe environment and it's going to get worse. If the staff feel that way I'm sure the patients do too." Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno says the treatment program is one of the best in the nation, but can be improved. He also says if he has to decide on the release of an offender, he'll make the decision independent of the governor's executive order.

Goodno says the sex offenders at Moose Lake and St. Peter are the most difficult to deal with, so it's no surprise that none have been released. He says it's his job to ensure that the public will be safe if any patients are released.

"We're not raising the bar," Goodno said. "What we are doing is we want to make certain that the treatment mechanisms that we have in place can give us some certainty that these folks will not pose a security problem for the people of Minnesota."

During hearings on the program in July, Goodno said it was "outrageous" to suggest that a plan to release 40 sex offenders was even discussed. He says now, however, that there are conflicting accounts from the clinicians who took part in such a discussion. The discussion occurred before the Pawlenty administration took office.

But even if releases are out of the question for now, Goodno says the department is looking at treatment options outside the security hospitals at St. Peter and Moose Lake. He says the department is considering community-based treatment for patients who complete treatment or are released through a court order. That means offenders could continue to receive treatment in a halfway house setting if and when they're released.

The cost of treatment has put pressure on the program. The state will pay $21.6 million to treat 199 patients in the current fiscal year. What's frustrating for the department is that it has to pay for treatment whether an offender participates or not. The department says 44 percent of the offenders in the program refuse treatment.

"There are people going in and not coming out and over time that means we keep building more and more facilities. We keep warehousing more and more people."
- Former Human Services Commissioner Michael O'Keefe

DHS projects the sex offender population will continue to increase by 20 patients every year.

"There are people going in and not coming out," said Michael O'Keefe, who served as commissioner of human services under Gov. Jesse Ventura. "Over time that means we keep building more and more facilities. We keep warehousing more and more people."

O'Keefe says the Pawlenty administration, the Legislature and clinicians in the program can no longer ignore the program's significant growth. He says they need to reexamine the treatment's effectiveness.

"We've got to grapple with it," O'Keefe said. "The questions we have to ask are: Is there a way to alter the treatment, to improve the treatment such that it's effective, that's number one, it seems to me. Number two is: Are there lower cost ways to provide both the treatment and the safety for the community for these various serious offenders?"

One proposed option would be to house offenders who refuse treatment in less expensive non medical settings. Commissioner Goodno says it's an option they're considering.

Several medical experts say politicians and the public have to prepare for the likelihood that some civilly committed offenders will be released.

The politicians who oversee the program are unlikely to release anyone unless they have full assurances that offenders won't harm anyone. The problem for clinicians is that it's hard to gauge the effectiveness of the program unless an offender is released. Until that time, the debate over effective treatment and the legality of the program will continue.

Respond to this story
News Headlines
Related Subjects