Minnesota sex offender program declared unconstitutional. Now what?

A federal court ruled Wednesday that a Minnesota program which commits dangerous sexual criminals to a mental health facility indefinitely after their prison sentence ends violates the rights of offenders. How is the way sex offenders are treated changing? 

Martiga Lohn/AP/File
This April 19, 2010 photo shows a secure facility that holds more than 400 men who are sex offenders who have completed their prison sentences, in Moose Lake, Minn.

A federal judge on Wednesday ruled the Minnesota Sex Offender Program unconstitutional, saying that it violates the "fundamental rights" of convicted offenders.

The program allows the state to commit sex offenders to a treatment facility indefinitely, after the completion of their prison sentences. A lawsuit was filed on behalf of the approximately 700 confined offenders; since the program's creation in 1994, no offenders have been fully discharged. 

Minnesota is one of several states with a continued confinement program. These programs date back to the early '90s, after a string of sexual attacks on children led US citizens to demand stricter preventative laws, according to the New York Times.

Today, we are starting to see a shift away from the dominant punishment-based approach as researchers learn more about what causes people to sexually offend. 

"In the 1980s, American states made the decision that sex offenders were not sick; they were bad," John LaFond, author of Preventing Sexual Violence: How Society Should Cope With Sex Offenders told the American Psychological Association. "Some states decided to offer treatment, but there wasn't much hope that it would work. Now, however, there's an emerging optimism that psychologists can deal with these people and offer alternatives to continued incarceration." 

According to Renee Sorrentino of Massachusetts' Institute for Sexual Wellness, one alternative is Lupron, a hormonal agent used to treat pedophiles. Dr. Sorrentino told Time the medication has proven to be "very effective," as it allows pedophiles to live their life without "craving" children.

Unlike chemical castration, which is mandatory for repeat offenders in some states, Lupron does not cause sexual dysfunction. Sorrentino says the ability to retain sexual function is important for offenders who would like to someday enter into an adult relationship. 

"Pedophilia is a risk factor, but so is lack of intimacy or support," Sorrentino says. "People who are not involved in relationships are also higher risk. Working on bolstering those things decreases recidivism."

A 2007 study from the Center for Violence Prevention, at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden concluded that sex offenders were significantly more likely to suffer from mental illness than men in the general population. Offenders were five times more likely to have been hospitalized for schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders and 30 times more likely to have been diagnosed with a personality disorder. They also had a greater risk of alcohol or drug dependence, the study reported.

Identifying and treating these disorders could lower the risk of sexual offenders repeating their crimes, said Dr. Seena Fazel, lead author of the study. 

Lawmakers must maintain a balance when dealing with sex offenders, as the most effective treatment for an individual is not always what's best for the public's safety, and vice versa. Sorrentino cites the example of community notification, a protective measure that can backfire. A report from the Justice Policy Institute shows that the rejection that offenders typically face from their community oftentimes leads to homelessness and unemployment, two factors that increase their chances of re-offending.

Some programs, such as Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA), are actively working to counteract this isolation. COSA, which began in a Canadian church in 1994 and has spread around the US and Europe, pairs offenders with small groups of volunteers who meet regularly to provide emotional support and discuss what factors led the offender to commit sexual crimes.

COSA appears to be effective, as one study published in the journal Sexual Abuse showed that offenders in COSA had an 83 percent higher reduction in sexual recidivism compared to non-participating offenders.

"As long as we keep pushing sex offenders to the edge of the community, we’re putting them at risk of reoffending," says Clare Ann Ruth-Heffelbower, founder of the COSA chapter in Fresno, Calif. "Even the worst of the worst of the worst are human beings, and they can change."

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