House rushes to notify public of sex offender; too fast, one lawmaker says
ST. PAUL -- A 64-year-old man who confessed to sexually molesting 29 youths is scheduled to become the first person to leave a state hospital sex offender treatment program, prompting the Minnesota House Monday to vote 127-1 to change state law so the public is notified near the halfway house where he is going.
The Senate is expected to pass the bill Thursday and Gov. Mark Dayton said he supports the measure, so likely will sign it before the week ends.
The bill was rushed through the House because representatives were told last week that the offender could be released this week, but reports on Monday indicated he may remain in the treatment program until mid-March.
The public should be notified when sex offenders are sent to halfway houses from the state treatment program, said bill sponsor Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Lake Elmo. But the lawmaker who opposed her bill said hundreds of sex offenders could be released if the treatment program is found to be unconstitutional, and he said Lohmer's bill could speed that along.
Current law requires public notification when an offender is released from a prison to a private home, but there is no provision allowing notification when someone goes to a halfway house from the state treatment program.
"Instead of rumor and uncertainty, community notification will provide factual public safety information regarding the discharge and supervision of sex offenders from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program to concerned citizens," Lohmer said.
No one ever has been discharged from the treatment program, other than one who soon was returned, but with Clarence Opheim's expected departure, legislators cut red tape, bypassing the state Constitution and their own rules to pass the bill quickly.
"We need to close a loophole in our sex offender laws," Lohmer told representatives as she began a minutes-long discussion on the issue.
House committee testimony last week about Opheim indicated he could be released this week. However, Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, said Opheim cannot be released until March 12. The Human Services Department, which operates the treatment program, did not immediately respond to questions about his release date.
House discussion was far too brief for Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson, the lone dissenter.
Hilty said in an interview that the rush to pass the measure could lead to a judge outlawing the existing sex offender commitment procedure and result in sex offenders being released. The bill, he said, would provide ammunition to those in the treatment program who say they are there unconstitutionally.
Many in the program claim that it is nothing more than an extended prison sentence, tacked on after they finished serving what the law requires. In several lawsuits, they say that violates constitutional rights.
Hilty said he fears a judge will look at the Lohmer bill and say that it changes the public notification law dealing with sex offender program patients to be the same as sex offenders getting out of prison, making prison and the program appear the same. The basis of a treatment program is that a patient has a chance to be released when cured, although that has not happened in Minnesota.
Program opponents say that it has been treated more like a life prison sentence than treatment, which they say violates the Constitution.
Opheim spent 18 years in locked in state treatment facilities after his prison term ended for molesting children in the 1970s and 1980s.
In St. Peter and Moose Lake state hospitals, 635 are undergoing sex offender treatment. Hilty said if a court rules that the forced commitment to take the treatment is unconstitutional, most could be set free.
Hilty, who represents the Moose Lake area, said Lohmer's bill skipped the House committee process, so there never was time to look into whether it could affect a court's decision on the program's constitutionality. Senators plan a Tuesday committee hearing on the bill.
"This was totally ill conceived," Hilty said.
The normally quiet lawmaker said the bill "is just entirely a political ploy," receiving all but his vote because representatives were afraid their opponents' campaign literature would say they voted against public notification.
On Feb. 15, a three-judge panel voted to release Opheim into a secure halfway house. But legislators discovered people who live near the facility would not be notified.
Opheim is expected to be in a Twin Cities halfway house, under tight surveillance that will include constant tracking of his movements.
Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.