The way Minnesota treats sex offenders is at a turning point that may mark the biggest change in 20 years. A special panel is recommending the release of two civilly-committed sex offenders.
Only one other sex offender has been released in the state prior to the new recommendation, and the new move has many people wondering why the state is shifting its policies. Part of the reason is simple: The state will is facing legal action over failing to release civilly committed sex offenders.
In Minnesota, there are two types of sex offenders. The vast majority are sent to prison and released. Others, like the two under consideration for release, are sent to treatment after prison under the civil commitment process at about four times the cost of prison. The problem for the 600 or so in treatment? Only a select few ever get out.
"There is no treatment. There never was any treatment," Michael Benson told FOX 9 News.
Benson is one of the very few to get out of the state's treatment program for sex offenders, and he did it the easy way -- he escaped.
After three weeks on the run in April 2006, Benson became the focus of a nationwide manhunt. He was captured in Kansas City after the bartender at a rib joint Benson frequented saw him on "America's Most Wanted."
Now, Benson is one of several so-called "clients" suing the Minnesota Department of Human Services in a federal, class-action lawsuit. The plaintiffs argue they've served their prison time and that indefinite civil commitment behind razor wire is unconstitutional.
"I'm locked up in a prison that has a hospital sign over it, but someday, we may be able to rip that sign off," Benson mused.
For all intents and purposes, there is very little separating the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in Moose Lake from the state prison just beyond the trees. So it begs the question: Is a treatment center in which people are supposed to get better and then be released a prison by another name?
When asked if DHS has felt pressured to loosen the reins on the program, Deputy Commissioner Anne Berry said, "There is appropriate pressure on all sides."
"There was a long period of time when there was no discussion at all of moving people into the community," Berry continued. "That's changed."
A big change came last year when Clarence Opheim became the first client to be released to a halfway house in St. Louis Park. He had molested 29 children, luring them with candy.
Now, a panel is recommending two more convicted sex offenders for release:
- Thomas Duvall, who raped a 17-year-old Brooklyn Park girl at knifepoint 26 years ago
- Kirk Fugelseth, who admitted to molesting 30 boys and girls in Minnesota and Oregon
Duvall and Fugelseth aren't the only ones up for consideration either. FOX 9 News confirmed that there are 36 clients in the final stages of treatment -- and if the state doesn't begin to release them, a federal judge might.
"There have to be alternatives," Berry said. "There [has] to be a way of treating people in less-restrictive measures."
Yet, state lawmakers refused to deal with a task force's recommendations last session, although that is no surprise. For 20 years, the debate over the program has been fraught with anger and fear -- beginning with sex predator Dennis Linnehan, the poster villain for the program.
"The Legislature couldn't even deal with the easy stuff," Benson said. "One of the hard things they're going to have to deal with is: Who is committable? Because right now, you could commit a cheese sandwich in Minnesota."
A couple days after Benson spoke with FOX 9 News, he sent a letter to say another client had "escaped." Raymond Messer hung himself in his cell, and in many ways, that's still the easiest way out of the program.
It is important to note that the release of the Duvall and Fugelseth is not a done deal. It's only been recommended by one panel and still must get through a Minnesota Supreme Court appeals panel.
As for the class-action lawsuit, the state has been in settlement talks for the last year. A task force appointed by a federal judge is expected to release its final recommendations about the program in the next few weeks.