Sjodin fallout: civil commitments for sex offenders soar

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Alfonso Rodriguez is currently awaiting trial on charges stemming from the brutal abduction and murder of 22-year-old college student Dru Sjodin. If federal prosecutors get their way, the convicted sex offender will be sentenced to death.

Rodriguez, however, is far from the only sex offender to be impacted by the case. Earlier this year the state legislature passed a bill providing harsher penalties for sex crimes, including life without parole for the worst offenders. But perhaps the most significant fallout from the Sjodin murder is a massive spike in the number of people being civilly committed as sexual psychopaths.

Between 1997 and 2003, according to figures provided by the Department of Human Services, an average of 19 men (there are no women) were committed annually. In December, 2003--the month after Sjodin was abducted--there were a total of 207 people enrolled in what's known as the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. (You can read my 2002 cover story on the MSOP here.)

But since then the numbers have skyrocketed. An additional 79 sex offenders had been involuntarily enrolled in the program as of May. That works out to roughly 56 commitments per year. In other words the commitment rate has tripled since Sjodin's murder.

The spike can partly be explained by a change in bureaucratic procedure. Prior to the Sjodin incident, the Minnesota Department of Corrections reviewed the resumes of all sex offenders exiting prison to see if they should be referred for possible civil commitment. But following public outrage over the abduction (the DOC failed to recommend Rodriguez for commitment), the state agency decided to refer all violent sex offenders to either the appropriate county attorney's office or the attorney general's office for scrutiny. This has led to a huge uptick in the number of cases that received a more thorough vetting.

But this change in procedure doesn't adequately explain the increase in civil commitments. After all the standard that must be met to commit an individual has not changed in any way.

The more fundamental change seem to be in the willingness (or lack thereof) of everyone involved--judges, prosecutors, psychiatrists--to declare a serious sex offender mentally fit for society. "They don't want to be the one who gives the next Alfonso Rodriguez the stamp of approval," says Warren Maas, coordinator of the Hennepin County Commitment Defense Project.

The stakes are incredibly high for those facing commitment. Although the program is nominally designed to rehabilitate offenders so that they can be integrated back into society, the track record is not impressive. Not one of the 286 men enrolled in the program has been successfully cured and released.

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