A Minnesota court has ordered the first-ever full and unconditional discharge from Minnesota’s sex offender treatment program, choosing a young man who has spent the past six years in state confinement solely for sexual acts he committed as a child.
Eric Terhaar, 26, was committed indefinitely to state custody in 2009, even though he never has been convicted of a sexual offense as an adult and was confined in part because of acts he committed as young as age 10, and which could have been influenced by his own sexual victimization, court records show.
On Wednesday, a Supreme Court appeals panel ruled that Terhaar no longer required inpatient treatment and supervision for a sexual disorder — and he no longer is a danger to the public — and that his continued confinement is unconstitutional. The panel held that his need for further therapy stemmed from his troubled past of being sexually abused as a child and his years of institutionalization and that those needs could be met in the community, rather than in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).
The ruling affirms an opinion two years ago from a panel of four court-appointed experts on sex offender treatment, who unanimously recommended that Terhaar be unconditionally discharged.
“Simply put, [Terhaar] does not belong at MSOP and may never have,” the panel said in its ruling.
Terhaar’s case embodies a broader debate about what constitutes a sexually dangerous person and whether juvenile offenders should be forced to undergo treatment designed for adults. Numerous studies have found that adolescents who act out sexually have low recidivism rates as adults, because their behavior as children is driven by different motives, such as curiosity and attention-seeking. Of the 725 people confined at the MSOP, nearly 70 were committed there based on offenses they committed as juveniles.
Human Services Commissioner Emily Johnson Piper said the state is discussing options to appeal the ruling. “I opposed Mr. Terhaar’s immediate and complete discharge from our program to protect the public’s safety and to ensure that people are reintegrated carefully and over time, which has been proven to reduce the risk of reoffense by sex offenders,” Piper said in a statement.
The state has 16 days to appeal. If it does not, Terhaar would be the first person ever fully released, without conditions mandating supervision, since the program was established in the mid-1990s.
The ruling Wednesday differs from a string of recent MSOP cases in which judicial panels have approved offenders for provisional release to halfway houses, with severe limits on their freedoms. In those cases, offenders have been subjected to round-the-clock surveillance, GPS monitoring and random searches. No such conditions were placed on Terhaar’s release.
Terhaar was born in 1990 in Georgia. His birth father went to prison and his mother abandoned him in a Las Vegas motel room shortly after his birth. His grandmother briefly raised him, but then abandoned him at a day care center. At age 10, Terhaar sexually abused his sisters, ages 7 and 10 at the time, who both had developmental disabilities. His adoptive mother made Terhaar sleep in a closet on a towel for days as punishment, according to court records. He reported multiple incidents of having been sexually abused, including before the age of 10.
Terhaar spent most of his teenage years rotating through institutions, where he displayed behavioral problems such as fighting, stealing, property destruction and lying, court records show. Once committed to the MSOP, Terhaar continued to engage in “assaultive behavior.”
Even so, the panel found that the bulk of Terhaar’s rule-breaking was minor and that there was little evidence that he is a danger to the public. “Frankly, [Terhaar] has spent most of his life living with others who failed to abide by societal rules and laws,” the panel said in its ruling.
In May 2014, the panel of court-appointed experts unanimously recommended that Terhaar be discharged. Of his juvenile behavior, they wrote, “There is good reason to believe that these sexual offenses were influenced by his own history of sexual victimization and a lack of understanding as to how to deal with his trauma.”
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308