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?

"It is well accepted in the literature that one size does not fit all," argues Eric Janus, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law. "Sex offenders are not homogenous. There are some radically different types of sex offenders."

Still, the daunting question remains: What should the state do with an individual who will more than likely commit another sex crime? Hennepin County District Court Judge Michael DeCourcy recounts committing a serial rapist who was HIV-positive and mentally retarded. The man repeatedly assaulted women even while undergoing treatment. After he was sent to Moose Lake, the Department of Human Services requested that Judge DeCourcy have him transferred offsite to a program that specializes in working with people who have significant cognitive impairments. The Judge refused for fear that the man would continue assaulting women.

"How do you develop a program when you have somebody with all of these obvious mental health issues and mental retardation?" asks DeCourcy. "My approach was, I don't know how you do it, but they have to make the effort to put the program together."

Shawn Barber

The fundamental problem is that no one really understands how to work with such people. In large part that's because the field of sex-offender treatment is still relatively new, and few scientists have examined the difficulties of treating people with low IQs. "While there's been a movement towards dealing more with cognitive deficits, I don't think anyone has backed off and taken a specialized view of this," says the U of M's Michael Miner.

In recent months the Department of Human Services, working with the Minnesota Department of Corrections, has taken steps to better serve people with developmental problems. In the summer of 2001, according to Michael Tessneer, director of strategic planning and development for a division of the state Department of Health and Human Services, a program was started at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter geared specifically toward people with cognitive impairments. "What we think we're going to get is a better set of treatment options for those patients," Tessneer says of the fledgling program.

The state has also made other changes in recent months in an attempt to expedite the treatment process for all offenders. More than a year ago the Department of Corrections began screening every sex offender who enters the prison system to determine whether he might eventually be a candidate for civil commitment. The hope is to get dangerous offenders involved in intensive treatment at the beginning of their prison sentences rather than at the end.

Since July, 30 beds at the Moose Lake correctional facility have been reserved for prisoners undergoing sex offender treatment. The state intends to add 20 more slots in coming months. These prisoners are provided with the same rigorous therapy as the men who have been civilly committed. "Our reasoning is, if we can get them engaged in treatment earlier in that incarceration, then it's likely that they will either be through that treatment or substantially through it" when their prison sentences expire, Tessneer explains. "For this population, treatment is a very long, intensive process of changing the way people think. It isn't gonna be two years and you're done."

It remains an open question whether any of these changes will result in rehabilitating sex offenders. Ultimately, if the 179 men committed as sexually dangerous persons or sexual psychopathic personalities are ever to be released, state officials will have to declare that they are no longer a threat to society. The truth is, nobody can say for certain.

"The only way they can do it in this case is to set up these hoops for people to jump through, and if they jump through them, you loosen the controls," says Janus. "But obviously it's total guesswork, because nobody understands the science."

As mental health officials struggle to get a better understanding of what causes people to be sexually violent, and how they might be treated, the 179 men civilly committed in Minnesota bide their time. "I would guess there is a huge well of anger there because of the hopelessness and the arbitrariness of the whole institution," says Janus. "We have truly created a Pandora's box that I don't think we know how to close."


Michael Meyer has been institutionalized for most of his adult life. In 1990, at age 20, he pleaded guilty to one count each of third- and fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct in McLeod County, as well as another fourth-degree charge in Polk County. Prosecution of other alleged criminal acts was dropped as part of Meyer's plea agreement.

His victims were mostly male teenagers and preteens. According to court documents, over the years he engaged in "inappropriate sexual contact" with 36 children. By Meyer's own admission there was "significant abuse" of 14 kids, which included fondling, masturbation, digital penetration, and oral sex.

On October 4 of last year, Meyer was in the laundry room of the Moose Lake facility dyeing another patient's hair when he got into a dispute. A third patient, who Meyer says had been harassing him for weeks, demanded that he be given any leftover dye. When Meyer refused, words were exchanged, then punches. Security personnel arrived on the scene in time to witness Meyer call his adversary a "fat fuck."

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