State prepares for release of more sex offenders

In early December, several dozen residents of Le Center, Minn., a small town about 30 miles northeast of Mankato, sat on middle school gym bleachers to hear about Robert Jeno, who was given a provisional discharge from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).

Jeno had served more than 10 years in prison for sexually assaulting two women and an assault with a knife before he was sent to the MSOP. He was about to move into a Le Center adult foster home. Resident after resident expressed concern over the new neighbor.

Josh Fredrickson wondered why the state would put Jeno in a small town.

"The thought is going to be in the back of every single person's head when they see this guy walking to the park or the grocery story, convenience store, whatever," he said. "Is this the best situation for this person?"

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In the coming months and years, scenes like the the one in Le Center are likely to happen more frequently. As the sex offender program heads to court Monday, the state already is preparing for more people to be released.

Lawyers representing hundreds of men and one woman in the program say it's unconstitutional to hold them after they've served sentences.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank already has indicated that the state needs to make changes in the sex offender program, the subject of a federal class action lawsuit. In a pretrial order he said "the interests of justice require that substantial changes be made to Minnesota's sex offender civil commitment scheme."

Most of the more than 700 people in the MSOP have already served sentences before being civilly committed. Around 60 were never convicted of a crime as adults. They say there's no clear path for release.

"I think ultimately if we're successful at trial, there will be some people who are currently committed at MSOP either at Moose Lake or at St. Peter, who will be released into halfway houses or other treatment facilities across the community," said Dan Gustafson, the attorney representing most of the people in the sex offender program.

In 21 years, two offenders have been provisionally discharged successfully, meaning they first had to go to secure housing where they would be strictly monitored, including with GPS. A Minnesota Supreme Court appeal panel ultimately grants or denies client petitions for provisional release. Provisional release usually includes intense monitoring, alarmed windows and doors on the facility and daily, face-to-face contact with reintegration specialists, especially in the first 30 days.

But Gov. Mark Dayton's latest budget proposal also outlines plans to try to improve the treatment and increase the frequency of the evaluation of clients.

Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson says those changes could mean a growing number are provisionally released from the program.

"When I started as commissioner about four years ago, we had about five clients in our end-of-treatment phase," Jesson said. "Now we have over 30. It's a good sign that some clients are making real progress through treatment and if they're going to be provisionally discharged, we need to be ready for them."

Right now, the state has seven contracts with housing organizations that could monitor former sex offenders. But those providers already house many other people leaving prison, and, in most cases, don't offer certain medical or mental health services needed to house certain offenders.

Dayton's budget proposes readying two facilities with about 20 beds each, according to Jesson.

"The contracts can handle some of it, but it really depends on the numbers," Jesson said. "There are gaps in the types of individuals these contractors will take, which is why ... we need to step in and fill the gaps."

Just over a year ago the state considered converting a state facility in Cambridge, Minn., to house MSOP clients, but Jesson says the state is not "looking at Cambridge for these purposes. In 2012, a halfway house in Golden Valley took in Clarence Opheim, who was provisionally discharged from the MSOP.

Golden Valley police Chief Stacy Carlson says the public was rightly concerned about Opheim moving in.

"People shouldn't be led to think that it's sort of a 'He's on his honor' and lets hope he doesn't leave the building or do anything bad," Carlson said. "It would've been extremely difficult for him to tie his shoe wrong because of the level of scrutiny he was under."

Richard Gardell, CEO of 180 Degrees, the group that runs the facility, says Opheim wanted to make the best of his opportunities.

"Clarence proved to be quite a successful experience," Gardell said. "He was motivated to do the right thing. He was motivated to not repeat his offenses and he was motivated to make a smooth transition back into the community."

Opheim is now living in Minneapolis. He's still being monitored under provisional discharge from the MSOP.