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Review panel recommends unconditional release of sex offender from state program

The review board recommended Eric Terhaar be released from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program with no conditions attached — the first time in two decades it has done so.

Eric Terhaar has spent the last six years in MSOP and has become a kind of mascot for the controversy surrounding the program.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

For the first time in more than two decades, a review board is recommending the full and unconditional release of a sex offender from Minnesota’s high-security treatment program.

On Sept. 8, the Special Review Board of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) recommended Eric Terhaar for release from the program with no conditions attached.

Since the program first opened its doors in Moose Lake in 1994, only five people have been recommended and approved for release, but nearly all of those offenders were sent to halfway houses or group homes and are still under intense supervision by the state. One offender broke the rules of his conditional release and was sent back to the program, while the latest offender’s provisional release is awaiting final approval. 

Terhaar, 25, has spent the last six years in MSOP and has become a kind of mascot for the controversy surrounding the program. He’s part of a group of more than 60 men in MSOP whose only offenses were committed as juveniles. The way the program is set up, juvenile offenders are treated alongside adult serial rapists and pedophiles.

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“I think it demonstrates, overall, that there are some serious flaws in the program,” said Timothy Churchwell, Terhaar’s lawyer who has represented clients in MSOP for 20 years. “As it relates to Mr. Terhaar, it’s a situation that has really gone way too far.” 

The process isn’t complete yet: the Minnesota Department of Human Services and the Todd County prosecutor (where Terhaar was originally committed to the program) have 30 days after the recommendation to appeal his release.

DHS wouldn’t comment on a possible appeal, while a county attorney said they would defer to state officials. A judicial panel appointed by the state Supreme Court will make the final call on Terhaar’s release.

Part of larger case

Terhaar was recommended for immediate release from the program last year by a panel of experts as part of a class-action lawsuit against MSOP. U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank denied his individual release, but this June Frank ruled the entire program is unconstitutional because it locks up more than 700 people with little hope of release. 

The sex offenders in MSOP have already served prison terms; once they near the end of their sentence, they can be reviewed and committed to MSOP for treatment if they’re still considered dangerous.

As a baby, Terhaar was abandoned by his mother and wound up in foster care. As a child, he was sexually abused by his uncle, and he sexually abused his own sister by the time he was 10. In juvenile facilities, Terhaar repeatedly got in trouble, often fighting with other delinquents or verbally assaulting staff.

Last fall, four experts from sex offender programs in New York, Wisconsin and Florida told the court that such incidents are not surprising given Terhaar’s own traumatic childhood. His sexual behavior has developed into that of a normal young adult during his time in MSOP, they said. Many states don’t allow for the civil commitment of people with only juvenile offenses, and their rate of re-offense as adults is low.

“It breaks every rule research tells us we should follow,” said Robin Wilson, one of the court-appointed experts who worked in Florida’s sex offender treatment program.

In an effort to raise questions about his readiness for release, Deputy Attorney General Nate Brennaman brought up Terhaar’s pattern of behavioral problems. At the time, Terhaar had committed three physical assaults against other MSOP patients and 47 smaller rule violations, Brennaman said. Brennaman also brought up an incident that occurred not long before Terhaar was civilly commitment to MSOP in 2009, when he was living with a foster family in Avon, Minnesota. Then 17, Terhaar was caught masturbating in a darkened car with a young child nearby while his foster parents picked up groceries.

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But while the state argued against his immediate release, Nancy Johnston, executive director of MSOP, testified that the lawsuit did put the state on an “expedited” track to release Terhaar.

Why now?

Three offenders have been recommended for release since the program was ruled unconstitutional in June. Eric Janus, the former dean of the William Mitchell College of Law who has studied sex offender laws for more than 20 years, said the sudden spike in releases is “suspicious.” 

“It’s like the Hoover Dam and a couple of drops have gotten through,” he said. “The scale of change that’s necessary is large. Does it have to start with one, two, three, four, five people? Yes, of course, but obviously they are going to have to change the system, not just make individual releases.”

State lawmakers have been ordered into Judge Frank’s courtroom on Sept. 30 to discuss remedies to the broader constitutional questions surrounding the program. 

Terhaar’s possible release also brings up questions about his ability to transition back into society. Terhaar has been institutionalized since age 10, and there will be limited state resources available to help him if he’s granted a full release from MSOP.

“How do you buy toothpaste, how do you live on a budget?” Naomi Freeman, an expert from the Bureau of Sex Offender Evaluation and Treatment in New York, asked last fall. “All those little things we take for granted.”