House Majority Leader questions pending release of convicted sex offender Clarence Opheimby Rupa Shenoy, Minnesota Public Radio
ST. PAUL, Minn. — A civilly committed sex offender will leave the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in St. Peter within three weeks. On Friday, a panel of three judges issued a written order allowing 64-year-old Clarence Opheim's provisional release to a secure halfway house.
Republican legislators say they want to know why the Department of Human Services didn't oppose Opheim's release. They'll hold hearings this week in an attempt to get an answer.
Republican House Majority Leader Matt Dean says he's shocked that DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's administration would allow Opheim to live outside the tight circle of razor wire that surrounds state facilities for civilly committed sex offenders.
"We can sure ask the department and the governor to reconsider," said Dean. "Holy cow. If this person were to reoffend and we didn't say anything, we would certainly not be doing our jobs.
"This is not a person that if they were to reoffend, that we would look back on and say, 'Boy, no one saw any warning signs.'"
Opheim has confessed to 100 criminal sexual acts committed against dozens of boys as young as 8. Records show he would gain the trust of children in his northeast Minneapolis neighborhood by offering them candy and pop.
Opheim completed a prison sentence, but judges found him too dangerous to release and committed him to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. Opheim spent nearly 20 years in the program undergoing voluntary treatment.
A year ago, Department of Human Services staff evaluated Opheim and found he was still in the high-risk range to commit a serious sex offense again. Majority Leader Dean says that shows Opheim is a danger to public safety.
"It's not what I think about Mr. Opheim, it's what the agency said -- that he is a threat and shouldn't be let go," said Dean. "That's not Matt Dean's opinion, that's the department's opinion."
So, Dean wants to know, what changed in a year? The answer involves a new report on Opheim from an independent, court-appointed evaluator -- Dr. James Alsdurf.
Alsdurf, a Wayzata psychologist, has been involved in Minnesota sex offender proceedings for decades. He says this is the first time he's endorsed a civilly committed offender's provisional release.
Alsdurf says he analyzed data and read hundreds of documents about Opheim, He then interviewed the Opheim for three hours and wrote a 14-page report.
"This is a rigorous process," said Alsdurf. "This isn't a flip of the coin. This isn't casual and it is done really with as much rigor that I think you can do it with."
Gov. Dayton has pointed out that the Minnesota Sex Offender Program is vulnerable to court cases that charge the program is unconstitutional because it's never released anyone. He says the whole program could be lost if such a court case were successful.
Civil commitment is also expensive. There are currently 635 people in the state sex offender program, and each of them cost the state $317 per day. By comparison, it costs Minnesota about $86 a day to keep someone in state prison.
In response, the Department of Human Services has worked with sex-offender advocates to build a community-based program that could handle the treatment and security needs of sex offenders once considered too dangerous for release.
Eric Janus, president and dean of William Mitchell College of Law, says the courts have been waiting for such a program.
"We have three judges who have plenty of experience in this, and have never let anybody out before," noted Janus. Now they've said, 'OK, you've got your ducks in a row, we're going to do it. Just like Wisconsin's done it, just like New York's done it, just like Texas has done it."
Once released, Opheim will wear a GPS monitor, get substance abuse treatment, and be under 24-hour security. Human Services commissioner Lucinda Jesson says those precautions, and the opinions of Alsdurf and other experts, convinced her not to oppose Opheim's release.
But Jesson says she'll make clear to legislators Wednesday that releasing Opheim was the court's decision.
"The benefit of having a hearing on this is I think it will make clear what the process is for provisional discharge," said Jesson. "If the Legislature, having learned what the process is, wants to try to change that -- I mean they're the Legislature, they can make the laws. But until they change the laws, I'm going to follow the ones that we have today."
Jesson also points out state law says that civilly committed sex offenders are eligible for release once they have completed treatment.
- Morning Edition, 02/13/2012, 6:20 a.m.