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Trial may bring changes to sex offender program

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

A federal court trial starting today could decide the future of the state's controversial sex offender treatment program.

More than 700 civilly committed sex offenders are suing the state claiming it's unconstitutional to keep them locked up indefinitely and that they don't get adequate treatment from the program run by the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

Most were court-ordered to receive sex offender treatment after they finished their prison sentences — a process called civil commitment. Offenders are confined to one of two treatment facilities in Moose Lake or St. Peter. The system was set up in the 1990s when current civil commitment laws went into effect. But it's been under fire for rarely letting anyone out until recently.

The program's been politically charged for years. There's no consensus among Minnesota lawmakers on how to fix it through legislation. With the federal suit pending, some in the Capitol want to let the case play out in court.

The Legislature should not act to change the sex offender treatment program until the judge decides the lawsuit, said state Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center.

"If he does rule this unconstitutional, I would ask the attorney general to immediately appeal it to a higher, more conservative court and to have the system keep in place until we can fix it," Cornish said.

The program held 703 people as of Oct. 1. The cost per day per client is $341, according to the Department of Human Services. That amounts to more than $124,000 a year to house and treat each offender.

While the state calls it a treatment facility and refers to offenders as "clients," many of the buildings at Moose Lake look and feel more like a prison. 

"It's set up, designed to look like treatment without the intent of ever letting anybody go," said Craig Bolte, 28, who's been confined at Moose Lake since 2007 after a Dakota County judge deemed him to be sexually dangerous. "The intent is if we can make it look like treatment then we can keep you here until you die."

Bolte's crimes include numerous sexual assaults on juvenile girls, but all of his crimes were committed when he was a juvenile himself.

"I do feel a lot of remorse for those crimes that I've committed," said Bolte, one of the 14 named plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit against the state. "Not everybody here's the monster that they think is here ... I'm not the kid I was when I got locked up 13 years ago."

In 2011, the state Office of the Legislative Auditor reported "significant inconsistencies in the commitment process" and suggested housing some offenders in "alternative settings."

In its court filings, attorneys for the state say the sex offender program doesn't violate constitutional rights and employs experienced clinical professionals who exercise "good faith judgment" and provide "comprehensive sex offender treatment according with standard practices." 

Convicted child molester Dennis Steiner, 65, is also named in the lawsuit. When he was convicted more than 20 years ago, court records show Steiner was to receive treatment instead of prison time. 

Steiner said he believed he would be out of treatment in three or four years. However, he remains civilly committed at Moose Lake, despite several attempts to be granted a provisional discharge over the years.

"I know I'll never do it again. I'll never want to do it again," Steiner said of his crimes.

Since the 1990s, when current civil commitment laws went into effect, only three offenders have been discharged from the program. All three were released with conditions. 

One returned to the program and two others — Clarence Opheim and Robert Jeno — are now back in the community but closely monitored. 

Opheim's registered address is in Minneapolis and Jeno lives in Le Center, Minn., according to the Minnesota Department of Corrections online predatory offender search. Both are Level 3 sex offenders, considered to be at the highest risk to re-offend.

Bolte and Steiner believe that after years of treatment — and growing up, in Bolte's case — they are ready to be and should be released from the program they describe as a life sentence.

"I sometimes wonder if I was out there instead of being committed, I could have been done with college by now, had a wife, a family, a career," Bolte said. "I could've already actively worked on proving to society that I am a different person."