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First Unconditional Release from Minnesota’s Sex Offender Program

U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank ruled in June 2015 that the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) was unconstitutional for indefinitely confining offenders who had completed their prison terms. In August 2016, a state Supreme Court panel ordered sex offender Eric Terhaar’s release after six years in the MSOP. Although a handful of sex offenders have been released from the program under strict supervision, the judicial panel ordered Terhaar’s release with no strings attached – a first in the program’s 20-year history.

Terhaar, 26, was committed to the MSOP based on sex acts he committed between the ages of 10 and 14. For advocates, his indefinite civil commitment reflected the larger problem of locking up too many people for too long. The Terhaar ruling is the second time in 2016 that a court panel has ordered the release of an MSOP resident despite expert testimony and the objection of state officials.

Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Emily Johnson Piper cleared the way for Terhaar’s release when she decided on September 7, 2016 to not appeal the judicial panel’s order. That decision was sharply criticized by state Representative Tara Mack, who said granting Terhaar’s freedom “potentially sets the other precedent, that other folks who are in this program who offended as juveniles will see this as an opportunity to petition for a release – and an unconditional release at that.”

But assuming that civil commitment is in fact intended to provide treatment for sex offenders, rather than serve as a proxy for continued indefinite incarceration, such releases should be lauded rather than criticized.


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