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'Many' could be released from Minnesota Sex Offender Program, say experts

The Minnesota Sex Offender Program facility in Moose Lake
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
The Minnesota Sex Offender Program facility in Moose Lake

Sex offender treatment experts from across the country told a packed federal courthouse in St. Paul on Monday that at least one man with no adult criminal charges should be released from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) — and that there are “many” others just like him.

The case and hearing are part of a class action lawsuit on behalf of the nearly 700 patients in MSOP alleging the way the program is administered is unconstitutional. That’s because hardly anyone ever gets out of the prison-like facility in Moose Lake — indeed, only one person has ever been granted provisional release from the program in its nearly 20-year history, even though many offenders there have already served their time in prison. Sex offenders are also treated on a seperate campus in St. Peter. 

Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank ordered a four-person panel, which includes sex offender experts from Florida, Wisconsin and New York, to review “bellwether” cases in the program, starting with offenders with lower cognitive abilities, the elderly and the more than 50 men in the program with no adult offenses on their record.

Eric Terhaar, 24, who the panel is recommending for release, falls into the category of juvenile offenders. He has been institutionalized since he was a teenager for sex offenses he committed before the age of 15. He was committed to MSOP after turning 18 and has been receiving treatment in the high-security facility ever since. The experts said Terhaar should have never been sent to the program in the first place because offenses as an adolescent require different treatment. Terhaar also does not pose a danger to society, they said. 

“[Juvenile offenders] are no more likely than any other delinquent to commit sex offenses as an adult,” said Michael Miner, an expert on the panel and a University of Minnesota professor.

Terhaar’s case, and that of the only woman ever committed for treatment in MSOP, Rhonda Bailey, were the subject of an all-day hearing Monday on the program. 

The experts testified they were “shocked” to learn Bailey — who has been committed to the program since 1993 — was living and being treated with all men in the program. They want the state to find a new, individualized treatment program for her.

But Minnesota Deputy Attorney General Nate Brennaman said the panel of experts seemed to be cherry-picking certain cases in MSOP instead of focusing on cases that are more representative of the whole program. The state is opposing the release of Terhaar and Bailey, who they say could still pose a threat to the public and are in needed of more treatment. 

Brennaman, who is arguing on behalf of the Department of Human Services, which administers the program, said there is no other place to put Bailey as a committed sex offender, and the panel of experts offered no solution either. 

“These are difficult issues, these are complex issues,” he said.  

The panel also plans to release a report on the program by the end of the summer. The hearing will continue on Tuesday, with a ruling expected from Frank shortly after. 

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