ABC 6 Investigates: Minnesota Sex Offender Program Part 1

Posted at: 11/18/2013 7:01 PM
Updated at: 11/25/2013 7:11 PM

(ABC 6 News) -- Minnesota's Sex Offender Treatment Program continues to be the center of huge debate.

Minnesota's Senate Judiciary Committee met Monday to discuss the program and says action needs to be taken next year or risk a federal judge doing it for them.

Just last week Governor Mark Dayton directed the Department of Human Services to stop releasing sex offenders from the program until the legislature can make changes to the program.

Problem is -- time is running out.
Jeff is a so called "client" inside Minnesota's Sex Offender Treatment Program in Moose Lake, Minnesota.
He was committed nearly three years ago and if history proves to be true, he could be in the program a long time.

"Some two to three years like me, some ten to fifteen years," says Jeff, "and theres just no light at the end of the tunnel."

Those "inside the wire" are frustrated because they say a treatment program is supposed to have an end date.

Nearly 700 clients are in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, so far only one has been released.
"Individuals who choose to actively participate in treatment and make changes look deep within themselves and want to change and want to do different, then they definitely deserve to move forward with their life," says Jeff.
Jeff and other clients are moving forward with a federal class action lawsuit against the Minnesota Department of Human Services, arguing they are being put away for what amounts to a life sentence.
"None of us were sentenced to a life sentence, we've done our prison time and now we're supposed to be here for treatment," says Jeff.

So it begs the question: is this a treatment program or a prison?
According to Department of Human Services Commissioner Luncinda Jessos, it's a rigorious treatment program for sexually dangerous people.
"People in our program are incredibly difficult, they have committed serious crimes or they would not be there," says Jesson.

ABC 6 News Anchor Laura Lee asks the Commissioner, "is this program unconstitutional?"

"It is constitutional, as long as there is treatment towards release," says Jesson.

A federal judge isn't so sure, and could rule it unconstitutional.

"That would mean he could order the state to make changes which could be very expensive or he could shutdown the program and say you have no right to hold these people," says Representative Tina Liebling, who is currently on a Task Force to help make recommendations to the program.

And if lawmakers do not act, that federal judge may do it for them.

"We risk having the entire program declared unconstitutional and put at risk all almost 700 of these men being released," says Jesson.

A state task force was created to help solve the problem, Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem is on it.

"We've got some 700 people who are not happy to be where they're at," says Ostrem.
The task force made recommendations and two bills were introduced last legislative session.
But were voted down in the house.

Now Minnesota is back to square one. "Anytime you do anything with sex offenders other than increase their sentences, other than be tougher, it's very difficult politically," says Liebling.

"There are some that people that we could probably manage within our communities," says Ostrem

Those like Jeff, hoping to get a chance to prove himself.
He is currently asking a panel to review his case to move on to phase three of treatment, essentially his last step before returning to society.

"I understand the choices and the crimes we committed are horrible," says Jeff, "just because we're sex offenders doesn't mean we can't change too."

"What can I say to society to get them to understand that, I don't know."

State Officials are currently at odds about the potential release of several offenders including Thomas Duvall who has admitted in treatment to raping more than 100 women.
Since then the governor has directed to stop any releases until there is more review of the program.
Coming up in part two of this special report we'll share a voice that hasn't been heard a lot in this debate, the voice of a victim.
Read and watch that full report, by clicking here.