Throwing Away the Key

There is no cure and no way out. So why does the state spend more than $20 million a year to treat 179 former sex offenders?

Nobody cares what happens to Jerome Daniels. The 68-year-old's life is on trial in Judge Kevin Burke's sixth-floor courtroom at the Hennepin County Courthouse and no one has shown up for the show. No one, that is, who isn't required to be here: two bailiffs, two attorneys, two psychologists, a court reporter, a clerk, and the judge.

Daniels sits impassively as psychologist Paul Reitman reduces his life to a handful of clinical terms: impulsivity, anti-social personality disorder, paraphilia, narcissism, volitional impairment, and psychopathy. Daniels's attorney, Marilyn Knudsen, repeatedly raises objections to Reitman's testimony, but to no avail.

What it all boils down to is that Daniels is a career pedophile with a 40-year history of molesting children, typically girls under the age of 12. During the course of that career, the Korean War veteran and three-time divorcé has undergone repeated intensive sex-offender treatment, received praise for his progress, then started all over again. He has spent most of his adult life either in prison or on probation. And the civil proceeding taking place on this Friday will determine whether he should be classified as a "sexually dangerous person," a "sexual psychopathic personality," or both--any of which could lead to his involuntary, indefinite commitment for treatment.

Shawn Barber

The differences between sexually dangerous person and sexual psychopathic personality, as defined by state law, may seem minimal--but they're legally significant. To commit someone as a sexual psychopathic personality, the state must show that the person has "an utter lack of power to control" his sexual impulses, a standard not required to prove that someone is a sexually dangerous person. Prosecutors almost always seek to commit people who fall in either category.

Reitman, who specializes in working with sex offenders and their victims, is one of two psychologists who have been appointed by the court to evaluate Daniels. During several hours on the stand, Reitman paints a dark portrait, labeling Daniels an "untreatable pedophile." "No treatment we know of to date will change him," he says.

In Reitman's opinion, even Daniels's previous therapy lessens the odds that he could ever be rehabilitated. "Comparatively speaking, if he had never had treatment, that might lower the likelihood of failure," he argues. Even Daniels's advanced age fails to alleviate the psychologist's assessment of the threat he poses to society: "There's nothing that suggests that at age 70 he will stop."

As the hearing drags on, it becomes obvious that if Daniels were committed he would essentially be losing his freedom for life. "How does a person like Mr. Daniels ever get out?" Judge Burke asks Reitman at one point.

"In my professional opinion, do I think he'll ever get out, no matter what he does?" Reitman responds. "No, I don't."

Judge Burke pushes the issue, quizzing the psychologist about the apparent futility of treatment. In response Reitman tries to come up with a scenario in which the career pedophile could one day complete treatment. "Frankly, with a history like his," Reitman concludes, "he'd have to walk on water."


On October 11 Daniels completed an 11-year prison term stemming from four counts of criminal sexual conduct. He hoped to live out his retirement years in a Blaine townhouse. But since being released, he has been in state custody. Later this month Judge Burke will decide whether or not he should be set free or institutionalized.

At present, there are 179 men in Minnesota who have been involuntarily detained as sexual psychopathic personalities, sexually dangerous persons, or both. Their crimes are heinous. Some, like the infamous Dennis Linehan, have raped and murdered. Others, like Daniels, have routinely molested young boys or girls. Most of the men have already served prison sentences. They are being detained not for crimes they have committed, but because it has been determined that they are likely to do something illegal in the future. They are not alone--other civil commitment statutes allow the state to detain people who are mentally ill and dangerous or who have chemical dependency problems that pose a public safety threat.

Most of these recidivist sex offenders are housed at the Minnesota Sexual Psychopathic Personality Treatment Center, a secure facility in Moose Lake that was opened in 1995. The remainder spend their days at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter. According to a 2000 report by the Minnesota Department of Corrections, the state spends $20 million annually on the Minnesota Sex Offender Program; that number is expected to double in five years and quadruple within a decade. And the number of people detained under such laws was projected to reach almost 350 by 2010. According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, which administers the treatment program, under optimal conditions the offenders could complete their therapy and be integrated back into society in four years.

But as testimony in the Daniels trial illustrates, no one is quite sure how or even if habitual sex offenders can be rehabilitated; in fact, over the past decade civil commitment has proven to be a de facto life sentence. Since the law pertaining to sexually dangerous persons was passed in 1994, broadening the state's ability to detain offenders, only one patient has earned his freedom. And, as the system's critics point out, this success story resulted not from the therapy program currently in place, but its precursor. According to the Department of Human Services, four other men are currently in the final "transition stage" of treatment, during which they are to be gradually reintegrated into the community. Some 20 percent of the patients refuse to participate in therapy at all.

Next Page »