Civilly committing sex offenders - KTTC Rochester, Austin, Mason City News, Weather and Sports

Civilly committing sex offenders

ST. PETER/MOOSE LAKE, Minn. (KTTC)--  Clarence Opheim openly admitted to molesting 29 children. in 1988, he was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for molesting an 11-year old boy. Clarence Opheim is now monitored but is free to roam society…he is the only client set free from the Minnesota civil commitment process.

"Civil commitment is taking those people who really are likely to commit another sex offense and who still need sex offender treatment and confining them in a secure treatment facility while they receive that treatment."

Originally built to house 150 men and women…there are now more than 600 sex offenders spending time in security hospitals at St. Peter or Moose Lake behind razor fences and concrete walls. They are cut off from society.

Private defense attorney, Brian Southwell says, "That's the problem with these laws, they've already served their sentence and they're entirely free to go, but the state says we are not going to let you go."

Civil commitment was created as an effort to rehabilitate offenders.

Ramsey county assistant attorney Beth Sullivan explains,"The primary purpose of the civil commitment is a protection of the public while the person is receiving further treatment so they will be safe to return to open society."

The program was originally a four-year process… but since it began in 1990... Opheim is the only one to be successfully released out of 664 prisoners.

Southwell explains, "The real problem here is there is no middle ground. You can't say this particular offender needs the treatment but he doesn't need to be locked up in a secure facility. You can't compromise by saying we'll place him in a community setting."

The cost of housing an offender in the security hospital program is more than $300 per day…versus 80 dollars it would cost to keep one inmate in prison. In the last 20 years the population at St. Peter and moose lake quadrupled. But it's not the cost that's the main issue in this debate.

Southwell declares, "Well don't forget this is the constitution. if they can do it to sex offenders are they going to do it to burglars next, are they going to do it to domestic abusers next? how far can government go to say we're going to take away your constitutional rights that have been in place for over 200 years? I see this as part of my job to defend the constitutional rights of these individuals."

The U.S. supreme court, along with the Minnesota state supreme court, have both held that keeping sex offenders in custody after serving their prison time does not violate the double jeopardy clause of either the state or the federal constitution.

Sullivan says,"The reason is that the person has already been punished for their crime but civil commitment is a different process- it's confining someone while they receive further treatment."

But the indefinite length of civil commitment... may put the entire program in a legal gray area. if there is no foreseeable release date for people ordered to be in the program, can it really be considered rehabilitation?

"At the initial phases there is not middle ground. you're either in the hands of your parole officer and you're not committed or you're committed for a decade, perhaps your entire life," Southwell explains.


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