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Should a juvenile sex offender be locked up indefinitely?

June 28, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
Even when they serve their time, sex crime offenders in some states are being held years beyond their release date. The civil commitment laws that let jailers deem convicts too dangerous to walk free are facing increased scrutiny, especially in Minnesota, where even juvenile sex offenders grow old behind bars. William Brangham reports.
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GWEN IFILL: Next: the difficult question of how to deal with people convicted of sex crimes, specifically what to do with young juvenile offenders. Should they be locked up indefinitely? Do they belong in facilities designed for some of society’s worst adult offenders?

William Brangham traveled to Minnesota for this report, part of our Broken Justice series.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This facility in the rural town of Moose Lake is where Minnesota puts the sex offenders it says are too dangerous to live on the outside.

Twenty-nine-year-old Craig Bolte is one of them. He’s been locked up for nearly half his life. It started when he was 15, when he pled guilty to sexually assaulting a younger member of his family, and also admitted to sexual contact with another minor. He says these were very troubling years for him.

CRAIG BOLTE, Juvenile Sex Offender: I was sexually abused on numerous occasions as a child when I was a young child, and that is by no means an excuse. I’m responsible for my actions. I still hurt people.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Bolte was originally sentenced to three years, but he’s now been behind bars here in Minnesota for 14, locked up with hundreds of rapists, child abusers, and other sex offenders.

They’re all being kept by what’s known as civil commitment law, which allows a state to deem someone an ongoing threat and even after their sentences are served keep them locked up indefinitely.

CRAIG BOLTE: I have been in for about 10 years now. All in all, I have been locked up for 14 years, 10 years of it here.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The “PBS NewsHour” was granted rare access to Minnesota’s sex offender program. We could film interviews inside this one room, but, almost everywhere else, we could only take still photos. Most everyone agrees that there are people locked up in Minnesota’s program who are very likely to reoffend. These are people who say they simply cannot control their behavior.

And that concern is why legislatures in 20 states have set up programs like this to hold these people. But others say these programs also end up snaring juvenile offenders who they argue have no business being held for years past their sentences.

ERIC JANUS, Mitchell Hamline School of Law: It’s outrageous. That’s one of the more outrageous features of this program.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Eric Janus is a law professor and longtime critic of Minnesota’s sex offender policies. He says juvenile sex offenders are almost never the kind of lifetime sexual predator that society needs to worry about.

ERIC JANUS: Probably a fairly high percentage of adolescent sexual offending is basically due to immaturity and experimentation, and so it’s not deviant sexuality. It’s not that they are attracted to violent sex or involuntary sex. It’s that they are immature, and that’s the kind of thing that they will grow out of.

ELIZABETH LETOURNEAU, John Hopkins School of Public Health: Juvenile sexual behavior, like every other kind of behavior, changes very rapidly.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Elizabeth Letourneau is one of the nation’s leading experts on juvenile sex offenders. She directs the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at John Hopkins University.

She says civilly committing juvenile sex offenders makes little sense, first because it’s incredibly costly. Minnesota spends about $125,000 per offender per year, which is roughly triple the cost of regular prison. But, most importantly, she says it doesn’t make sense because juvenile offenders are likely not lifetime offenders.

ELIZABETH LETOURNEAU: Among youth who are adjudicated for a sexual offense, so they have been arrested, processed, 97 percent to 98 percent will not reoffend sexually. So, truly, the vast majority…

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Almost all of them.

ELIZABETH LETOURNEAU: … will not — almost all youth, if they are caught committing a sexual offense, will not do it again.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Emily Piper is the commissioner of Minnesota’s Department of Human Services, which oversees the state’s sex offender program.

She says only 4 percent of Minnesota’s registered sex offenders are currently civilly committed, and she argues the state is rightly incarcerating the most troubling of those.

EMILY PIPER, Commissioner, Minnesota Department of Human Services: The sex offenders in our program have some of the most horrible criminal histories and horrible crimes in their past of any sex offenders in our state.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: However, there are currently 67 men like Craig Bolte who have been locked up for crimes they committed as juveniles.

Many of these young men, dozens of them, who were put in for crimes they committed when they were juveniles, and now they are in their 30s, and 40s and 50s, is this the right place for them?

EMILY PIPER: You know, I would say many of the people that are committed as juveniles don’t have a lot of life experience outside of being confined.

And so when we’re working with them, we need to make sure that we’re appropriately and adequately reintegrating them into our society.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That’s the stated goal of the program, to give mental health treatment to the offenders, and release those who are deemed ready for life on the outside.

But in the last two decades, not one person has ever been fully released back home. More than 40 have died while in commitment. The oldest man here is 94. Several are older than 70.

CRAIG BOLTE: Once the doors close, you know really quickly that you are going to die here, and that’s your only way out.

WOMAN: Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. is on death row.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The use of civil commitment took off in Minnesota as a result of a particularly harrowing case. Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. spent 23 years in prison for rape and attempted kidnapping. But six months after getting out, Rodriguez struck again, kidnapping college student Dru Sjodin.

LINDA WALKER, Dru Sjodin’s mother: This was at her brother’s wedding in 2002.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Linda Walker is Dru’s mother.

LINDA WALKER: We’re almost positive that he had her for three hours, brutally raped and tortured her, then walked her down in a ravine, and slit her throat and left her to die.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Outraged that someone like Rodriguez had been set free, Walker helped create the national sex offender database, where communities are notified if former offenders move into their area.

And her advocacy in Minnesota helped expand that state’s use of civil commitment. In 2003, less than 200 men were civilly committed in the state, but in the wake of Dru’s rape and murder, that number has more than tripled to 725 today.

LINDA WALKER: I realized that we needed more tools in our chest to protect our society from those that choose to violate and to rape our women and children.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So you don’t think that there is any rehabilitation for this level of criminal?

LINDA WALKER: I do not.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: There’s nothing that can be done?

LINDA WALKER: I do not believe there is, no.

MICHELE BOLTE: I feel horrible for Dru Sjodin’s mother. I sympathize with where she is at and what’s happened to her daughter, but Craig isn’t even close to Alfonso whoever did what he did.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Rodriguez.

MICHELE BOLTE: He’s — it’s a total different animal, in my opinion.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Craig Bolte’s mom, Michele, is now one of his biggest advocates, even though she and her husband were the ones who first turned their son into the police years ago.

MICHELE BOLTE: Honestly, when I look back, I feel like I gave my child a life sentence.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Michele was just 14 when she gave birth to Craig. She says it was early on, when Craig was a toddler, that he was first sexually abused by an older family member who lived with them.

MICHELE BOLTE: My family has a history of sexual abuse. I was abused. My brother was abused. Now my son was abused.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: She says it’s that history that led to Craig’s childhood abuse of other kids, but she now believes her 29-year-old son deserves a second chance to live in society.

MICHELE BOLTE: You can’t sentence a child murderer for life. But you can, in the state of Minnesota, sentence a child sex offender for life. I mean, it’s just a total double standard. It makes no sense, because you hide behind that it’s treatment.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In 2011, a class-action lawsuit was brought against the state by a group of offenders in Minnesota’s program, including Craig Bolte, arguing they were not getting any meaningful treatment and were instead being held indefinitely.

And, last year, federal district judge in St. Paul sided with them, saying that Minnesota’s sex offender program was unconstitutional, ruling — quote — “It’s a punitive system that segregates and indefinitely detains a class of potentially dangerous individuals without the safeguards of the criminal justice system.”

The state has appealed the decision, and a ruling is expected this fall. In the meantime, state officials say they have already started making changes. Five offenders have been moved into less restrictive settings, and new reviews are being done of all offenders to determine who’s a potential candidate for release and who isn’t.

Even Dru Sjodin’s mother, Linda Walker, admits that maybe some juvenile cases should be reexamined, but she hopes that, in all its reforms, Minnesota will err on the side of caution before releasing anyone.

LINDA WALKER: We’re constantly taking the victims out of the equation every time that we sit and analyze these people, and what about their freedom? They don’t get it back. Dru is never going to get hers back.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Craig Bolte says he’s a changed man, and that he’s hopeful for the first time that he might one day get out.

There’s a lot of people who will hear what you have to say, and that they’re simply not going to forgive what you did. And so they say, look, lock him up and throw away the key.

What is your response to that? What do you say to those people?

CRAIG BOLTE: I say, let me prove it. Let me show you what kind of man I am today. Let me prove that I’m not the kid that I was that did those things.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In addition to the changes in Minnesota, Missouri and Texas have also recently begun reviewing their civil commitment programs for sex offenders.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m William Brangham in Moose Lake, Minnesota.

GWEN IFILL: We continue our Broken Justice series tomorrow, with a report on educational options for young people inside the juvenile justice system.

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