ST. PAUL, Minn. -- A trial begins Feb. 9 in Minnesota federal court that could determine the future of the state's sex offender treatment program.
More than 700 civilly committed sex offenders are suing the state in a class action federal lawsuit that alleges, among other things, that it is unfair and unconstitutional to keep them locked up indefinitely. They also allege the program does not provide adequate treatment.
The Department of Human Services runs the Minnesota Sex Offender Treatment Program (MSOP). Most MSOP clients were court-ordered to receive sex offender treatment after they finished serving their prison sentences in a process called civil commitment.
Offenders who are ordered into the program are confined to one of two MSOP treatment facilities -- Moose Lake or St. Peter. The treatment program was set up in the 1990s when current civil commitment laws went into effect, but it has been under fire for rarely letting anyone out until recently.
The program has been politically charged and Minnesota lawmakers have not come up with a bi-partisan legislative fix. Last session a proposal to address MSOP concerns made little headway at the legislature in the middle of an election season. This session it is still unclear whether lawmakers will take up the MSOP issue with the federal lawsuit still pending.
The MSOP's population was 703 as of Oct. 1, 2014. According to the Department of Human Services the cost per day per client is $341. That amounts to more than $124,000 per year to house and treat each client.
Craig Bolte is an MSOP client at the facility in Moose Lake. In 2007, he was deemed by a Dakota County judge to be a 'sexually dangerous person' and was civilly committed. 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," Bolte said. "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."
Bolte is one of the 14 named plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit against the state. Dennis Steiner, a convicted child molester, 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 the Moose Lake facility 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, just three men have been let out of the sex offender treatment program with a provisional discharge. One returned to the program and two others are now back in the community – Clarence Opheim and Robert Jeno - but they are both closely monitored. Opheim's registered address is in Minneapolis and Jeno lives in Le Center, according to the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) online predatory offender search. Both are Level 3 sex offenders, considered to be at the highest risk to re-offend.
No one has ever been discharged from the MSOP without conditions.
Both 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. I could've already actively worked on proving to society that I am a different person," Bolte said.
Among the issues in the lawsuit, the court is being asked to determine whether it is constitutional to keep these men locked up, often for many years, after they've already served their sentence and are released from prison. And while the state calls it a treatment facility and refers to the men as 'clients' many of the buildings at Moose Lake look and feel more like a prison. Bolte says how to successfully progress through treatment is a mystery.
"It's set up, designed to look like treatment without the intent of ever letting anybody go. The intent is if we can make it look like treatment then we can keep you here until you die," Bolte said.
In court filings attorneys for the state say MSOP employs experienced clinical professionals who exercise "good faith judgment" and provide "comprehensive sex offender treatment according with standard practices." They say MSOP has established policies for legitimate therapeutic and safety interests that do not violate constitutional rights.
In 2011, the State Auditor released a report citing "significant inconsistencies in the commitment process" and suggested housing some offenders in 'alternative settings'. In addition, a task force ordered by U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank to examine the program found "serious problems", calling it a system that captures too many people and keeps many of them too long.
In addition, an expert panel appointed by the court has issued dozens of recommendations for the sex offender program, including individual evaluations of each resident to ensure compliance with the criteria for confinement. The panel also said the state's civil commitment statute should be changed to ensure it is used only for the most dangerous sex offenders, who are at the highest risk to re-offend.
"They just don't get it. You can't lock somebody up forever for what they might do in the future," Dennis Steiner said of the way the MSOP currently operates.
Minnesota has the highest number of civilly committed sex offenders per capita of any state.
Bolte and Steiner hope the lawsuit will change that, saying they are ready to return to society and the community should not be fearful.
"I genuinely care about people and I have no desire to ever hurt anybody again in any sexual way," Bolte said.