ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The prospect that two violent sexual predators could be released from a state treatment program drew a skeptical reaction from lawmakers Tuesday, even though they won’t be the ones to decide whether the offenders get out.
Officials with the Minnesota Sex Offender Program fielded questions from a House public safety committee on the offenders whose petitions for release are working their way through the legal process. Program director Dennis Benson declined to name them, but court files identify them as John H. Rydberg and Thomas Ray Duvall.
Both have graduated to advanced treatment on the program’s St. Peter campus and were recommended for provisional discharge by mental health experts. A three-judge panel appointed by the state Supreme Court is expected to rule on both cases in the coming months.
House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee Chairman Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, said he has been hearing from constituents who can’t believe either could get out. He said he’s satisfied that the sex offender program has never released anyone since it started in 1994. One offender got a provisional discharge for a few months but was pulled back inside and later died there.
“If these judges do release them, it’s on their head, not mine,” Cornish said.
The Minnesota Sex Offender Program now has 605 offenders committed by the courts to treatment after serving prison time. The number has tripled since 2003, when the rape and murder of North Dakota college student Dru Sjodin by a sex offender released from a Minnesota prison led to a surge in civil commitments of sex offenders.
Benson said the lack of releases puts the program on shaky legal ground.
He said provisional discharge would mean that the offender would live in a halfway house for two to six months, with outpatient treatment, daily check-ins by a personally assigned agent and other monitoring including GPS tracking, urine tests and lie-detector tests. Benson said monitoring would continue as the offender reintegrated into community life. He is also seeking legislation allowing program officials to pull an offender back inside the program for up to 60 days to better manage their reintegration.
Benson acknowledged that it is tough to justify more freedom for sexual predators, even those who have made the most progress in treatment. He said the clients in his program have an average of 16 victims each.
“We don’t have a lot of lightweight offenders in our program. So that’s going to make it difficult for all of us to try to explain that to the public,” Benson said.
Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, said he would prefer to see tougher conditions for the sex offenders in treatment.
“Let’s not make them as comfortable as possible. How about making them a little bit miserable, and I am talking about chain gangs, ok? Where they do strong, physical work, which is one of the best medicines for deviant behavior,” Gruenhagen said.
Later, he asked about castrating sexual predators.
Jannine Hebert, the program’s clinical director, said some states make chemical castration to suppress testosterone a condition of probation, but the drug treatment doesn’t address the roots of many sex crimes.
“I would respectfully disagree,” Gruenhagen said. “It sure worked well on the farm, I’ll tell you that.”
The House panel doesn’t have jurisdiction over the budget for the sex offender program, which is run by the Department of Human Services. But the committee is looking at related issues including prison sentences for sex crimes. Cornish has a bill that would raise the guideline sentence for first-degree sex crimes to 25 years instead of 12 years.
The hearing came as focus on the sex offender program has intensified. The Star Tribune reported Sunday on Rydberg’s and Duvall’s petitions for discharge, and again Tuesday on edits to a report on the program made by former Human Services Commissioner Cal Ludeman, an appointee of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican. The edits downplayed talk of treatment and community resources for sex offenders and emphasized tougher prison sentences.
Benson declined to comment on the redactions, saying commissioners have the prerogative to edit reports to the Legislature.
Ludeman also filed petitions asking the judicial panel to block Rydberg’s and Duvall’s releases.
Rydberg’s attorney, Brian Southwell, said the former commissioner’s legal actions went against his own department’s recommendations. And Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, said she was disappointed that Ludeman would get involved in the court process.
“This is a program that’s supposed to be one that allows for rehabilitation of some people, and if we never allow them to be considered for release based on their rehabilitation, I think the constitutionality of the program is at stake,” Berglin said.
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