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Audit: Inconsistencies, high cost in Minn. sex offender treatment

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Moose Lake Correctional Facility
This facility in Moose Lake, Minn., houses the state's sex offender treatment program.
Photo Courtesy of the Department of Human Services

A report released Friday by Legislative Auditor James Nobles raises a number of questions about the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. 

It's a program that's come under scrutiny because of escalating costs and questions about its effectiveness. The program is high profile because it deals with people convicted of the most horrific sex crimes. 

The report warns Minnesota may not be protecting the public from the most dangerous sex offenders.

  Twenty states in the country make civil commitment an option when a sex offender is about to be released from prison. Civil commitment means indefinite detention for a sex offender. 

Minnesota civilly commits more people per capita than any other.

  John Yunker led the auditor's investigation and presented the report at a legislative hearing. He said the number of sex offender cases referred to civil commitment rose dramatically in December 2003. 

"That happened following the murder and rape of Drew Sjodin in northwestern Minnesota," Yunker said. 

A convicted sex offender, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., faces the death sentence for Sjodin's muder. 

"Prior to that point the department of corrections had been more selective in making referrals, but after that heinous crime they began referring anyone who appeared to meet the legal standard as a sex offender," Rodriguez said.

The Department of Corrections refers cases to county prosecutors for civil commitment. And that's where the auditor's report found inconsistencies. 

Counties handle the process of deciding who gets committed very differently. The numbers bear that out. Hennepin and Ramsey counties end up civilly committing about 35 percent of potential cases. In the rest of the state, the percentage is nearly twice that.

Yonkers said that inconsistency should be a concern. 

  "Some offenders being released from prison have a higher recidivism rate than others who are being committed," Yonkers said. "We're simply not committing the worst of the worst. We've got some inconsistent decisions being made."

The auditor's report also raised the question of cost. The state spends $120,000 annually for each man detained in the treatment facilities at Moose Lake and St. Peter. That's three times the cost to keep a man in prison.

The report found most of the money spent on men in civil commitment goes toward security. In fact, Yunker said people in civil commitment should receive more treatment. 

The legislative auditor's report also recommended treatment options that may be cheaper, including community-based halfway house programs. A similar Texas program costs $27,000 per person annually. 

Yunker said right now, the only options available to district court judges are expensive and intensive.

"They basically face a choice between sending someone to a high security facility or letting them be released from prison," Yunker said. "Minnesota lacks any options that are intermediate."

The report recommends setting a statewide standard for civil commitment by establishing a central court to hear the cases. 

Republican state Rep. Tony Cornish is chief of police in Lake Crystal and came away from Friday's hearing with the impression that the decision to civilly commit someone is, essentially, guesswork on the part of district judges.

"I never trust a guess," Cornish said. "That's why 36 years of law enforcement has told me the best guess is to put them behind bars."

Still, Cornish said he may put a study group together in the next couple weeks to recommend legislation that would address some of the concerns raised in the report. 

The Department of Human Services runs the Minnesota Sex offender program. Deputy Commissioner Anne Berry said her agency doesn't dispute the auditor's report. 

"We think it's very thorough, very well researched, accurately portrays the process in our state and we're very pleased that they have raised some very important issues," Berry said.

Berry said they've already increased the number of hours sex offenders spend in treatment. And last week her department signed a contract to house men released from civil commitment in community-based halfway houses. 

The first person to go through that program may be 69-year-old Thomas Rydberg, who had his own hearing in a Ramsey County courthouse Friday.

Rydberg is seeking release from civil commitment, and some experts say he may be the first to succeed in Minnesota.