Portrait of a Civil Commitment

Sex offender Bruce Foley was never committed. Then Dru Sjodin disappeared.

Almost 30 years ago in Maine, Bruce Foley was convicted of rape. After serving a seven-year term, Foley found his way to Minnesota 12 years ago, and again ran afoul of the law. He was twice convicted of fondling teenage girls. The 56-year-old's frequent appearances at the Renville County courthouse, in western Minnesota, and prisons throughout the state, led to the diagnoses of a nonspecified fetish and Antisocial Personality Disorder, a diagnosis given to people with a pervasive disregard for the rights of others.

Foley was marked as a guy who had a high chance of re-offending and a low chance of success with sex offender treatment. Yet he was released into the community.

Though his diagnoses haven't changed and the laws remain the same, Foley was civilly committed last month, even though he was charged with no new crimes after he was released from prison little more than a year ago. Foley, it seems, was one of the first men targeted with the newfound vigor for civil commitment after Alfonso Rodriguez was charged for kidnapping Dru Sjodin.

Rehabilitate or throw away the key? Bruce Foley's appearance changed; his behavior didn't
Minnesota Department of Corrections
Rehabilitate or throw away the key? Bruce Foley's appearance changed; his behavior didn't

Foley's case underscores just how squeamish public officials have become since Rodriguez's visage was popping up on cable news channels. While nobody wants to see another high profile abduction case like that of Dru Sjodin or Erika Dalquist, the avalanche of publicity and political grandstanding surrounding sex offenders has left the issue of what to do with them as murky as ever.

The tightening system that civilly commits sex offenders is either finally putting public safety at the forefront or it is depriving individuals of liberties they deserve, depending on who's talking. Either way, more men face the possibility of being committed to a sex offender treatment program that has not met a lot of success.

"It's a 180-degree turn," explains Foley's attorney James Dahlquist. "We were in a period [pre-Rodriguez] when the DOC was talking about studies that showed better results in community-based settings."

That era is close to being over. The Department of Corrections (DOC) quit its practice of passing along recommendations for commitments. Instead, all "level 3" offenders, those with the highest chance to re-offend, are referred to county attorneys, and it is up to them to find a psychologist's recommendation for or against commitment. Already this year, the state Attorney General's Office, which helps rural county attorneys, has assisted with 10 petitions for commitments, which is just one less than the number of petitions it assisted with all of last year.

Had it not been for Rodriguez's arrest and the DOC's abdication of its role of referring men for commitment, some wonder if Foley would have been ordered to a state hospital for sexual offender treatment.

In March of 2003 and later that year in November, two different DOC psychologists reviewed Foley's file for a commitment recommendation and both concluded that Foley should not be committed. The second DOC psychologist, Dr. Penny Zwecker, reasoned that Foley's history was not the type of history typical of an offender who met the commitment criteria.

Days after it was reported that Sjodin's blood was found in Rodriguez's car, and a month after Zwecker recommended against commitment, Foley's DOC release agent asked for a reassessment for commitment. Around December, an AG-endorsed psychologist, Dr. James Alsdurf, reviewed the same assessment scores of Foley. The psychologist added notes about Foley's refusal to accept responsibility for his actions and the fact pornographic videos were found in his apartment while he was on supervised release. Alsdurf then recommended Foley for committal.

Foley certainly has a checkered past that is cause for concern. His first conviction for a sexual crime dates back to that 1977 rape in Maine. To find distance from that past, in 1992, Foley moved to Buffalo Lake, a town 80 miles west of the Twin Cities in Renville County. He found a job working as cooler man for Minnesota Beef Industries, and he spent his free time watching movies. But soon Foley was being accused of offering girls cash for their virginity and buying alcohol for minors in exchange for letting him take pictures of them. In 1997, Foley was charged with sexually assaulting a 16-year-old while she was passed out in his apartment. Foley denies committing the offense, but he was convicted of fourth-degree sexual conduct, the least severe felony-level sex crime.

Four years later, in 2001, Foley was convicted again of fourth-degree sexual conduct. According to court documents, Foley said he thought the 13-year-old girl was 18 and that she kissed him of her own free will. He was sentenced to 30 months.

In March 2003, Foley was released from prison and moved to Renville, population 1,300, which is on the other side of the county from his previous home. He is the first and only level 3 to live in Renville County. Foley spent much of his time watching historic documentaries, and he was supposed to be looking for a job. While under supervised release, he was sent back to prison twice, for having porn and failing to complete sex offender treatment.

Foley's trips back to prison for technical violations are not unique. The DOC says 45 percent of level 3s are picked up for release violations, such as drinking or using the internet, during the first three years of their release. Some say that's proof the system works. But nationally, sex offenders are less likely to be arrested after being released from prison than other criminals, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics study. The 2003 study concludes that while overall re-arrest rates for non-sex offenders is 68 percent, it is 43 percent for sex offenders.

It was while Foley served time for his second release violation, which happened in October 2003, that he was recommended for civil commitment. Last month, Eighth Judicial Court Judge Randall Slieter ruled that Foley has an "utter lack of power to control sexual impulses" and committed him to St. Peter, which, along with Moose Lake, is one of the two state hospitals that offers a sex offender treatment program. Although St. Peter's treatment is not supposed to be a life sentence, no one has ever graduated from the program.

Warren Maas, coordinator of the Hennepin County Commitment Defense Project, says the program needs to be more accountable. "I don't think anyone [in sex offender treatment] should be put away for the rest of their life," says Maas.

James Dahlquist, Foley's court-appointed attorney, boils the commitment order down to a difference in medical opinion. But he says the political atmosphere had something to do with it. "We get Dru Sjodin and suddenly Foley meets the standards?" asks Dahlquist.

People in Mike Hatch's office specifically refute the notion that a political atmosphere has affected court hearings. "This is about public safety, that is the bottom line," says Chief Deputy Attorney General Kris Eiden. She asserts there were other issues for the DOC when it was making recommendations for commitments. "Our concern is that the referrals were going down because of budget considerations," says Eiden.

For now, Foley is as good as out of sight, out of mind. With the Legislature recessed and little change in the way of new legislation, the system for dealing with sexual offenders lingers in the new vigor with which the current laws are being enforced--not in any new answers to the old questions of rights and rehabilitation.

Then again, Maas, as an advocate for those committed, has more worries about what could happen with proposed laws than what is happening with the current ones. "Clearly, at the top level," Maas says, "the governor and the attorney general and many in the Legislature would just as soon we shot these guys than see them."

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