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Richard A. Williams, a 61-year-old sex offender with a history of breaking into women’s bedrooms and assaulting them at knife point, has created a 21-page plan for staying straight.

Replete with graphics and charts, it catalogs the tactics Williams has learned to control his violent urges, from calling a friend to repeating a personal oath of integrity when he feels aroused. “I’ve come a lifetime from where I was when I committed my crimes,” said Williams, who admits to 20 victims. “I just want the opportunity to show the world that I’m a new man.”

After decades in confinement, Williams may now get that chance.

He is among dozens of men moving quickly toward provisional release from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP), which faces court pressure to show that it’s not a de-facto life sentence. In just 14 months, six offenders have been granted conditional release, compared with only two in the program’s prior 20 years. Another 58 have been moved to dormlike settings on the MSOP’s St. Peter campus, a final step before public release.

“This is absolutely unprecedented,” said Dan Gustafson, the lead attorney for a class of offenders suing the state. “There appears to be a growing recognition of individual rights and the idea that we can’t hold these people forever just because we don’t like them.”

The shift has occurred despite concerns voiced at recent public meetings and over the objections of some treatment professionals — and, in some cases, even the state agency overseeing the MSOP.

“When I disagree, I will appeal. We will continue to do all we can to protect public safety,” said Human Services Commissioner Emily Johnson Piper, who vowed to oppose the release of any offender her agency still considers a threat to the public. The commissioner recently appealed a judicial panel’s decision to conditionally discharge a man convicted of raping three teenage girls.

At the same time, state leaders may have no choice but to loosen their grip. The MSOP has been declared unconstitutional by a federal judge in St. Paul, who has threatened to order reforms if the program cannot demonstrate the ability to treat and release more of the 726 offenders confined at secure facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter.

Now Richard Williams finds himself just one court decision away from conditional release, and he is determined to prove that he is not the same thrill-seeking man who burglarized apartments and terrorized women more than three decades ago.

In an interview last week on the edge of MSOP’s sprawling campus in St. Peter, with a security escort watching, Williams teared up as he described the “horrors” of his past assaults, the effect on his family and the regret of not “being there” for his five daughters.

“Quite frankly, at the time, I didn’t see their horror,” Williams said of his victims. “I didn’t see scaring a woman as horrible. I was getting my needs met and that was that. I didn’t see it until afterward, when the guilt sets in and the fear sets in.” His baritone voice cracked, “You know, it gets really hard.”

Ankle bracelet

While in custody, Williams admitted to sexual offenses against 19 adult women and a girl. During the incidents, he frequently used a knife, physical force and threats of harm to gain women’s compliance. In one particularly horrific incident in 1982, a 12-year-old girl woke to see Williams kneeling next to her bed masturbating. After she and her mother screamed, Williams fled. Both of the victims then noticed that their nightgowns had been slit open, court records show.

Two years later, Williams entered a woman’s apartment while she was sleeping on the living room couch. When she awoke, he tried to cover her eyes with his hand but she pulled away and screamed. After Williams fled, the woman noticed that her jeans and shirt were cut and there was semen in her hair.

Despite the severity of his offenses, a three-judge panel in 2013 overruled the objections of MSOP’s treatment staff and approved Williams for transfer to a special community re-entry program. Here, just outside the secure perimeter of MSOP’s campus in St. Peter, he is allowed more freedom but still wears an ankle bracelet and lives under strict surveillance.

The fact that Williams is even here — beyond the razor wire of the main campus — is evidence of a loosening of attitudes toward offenders. He has struggled in therapy, often minimizing his crimes as “burglaries with sexual elements,” court documents show. Over the past year, he showed a “deceptive” response in two lie detector tests when asked if he masturbated to fantasies of violence and brutality, records show.

In years past, offenders like Williams won the support of judicial review panels only if they were recommended by their treatment teams and had reached the final phase of treatment at MSOP. Now, however, the panels seem prepared to move offenders who are struggling in therapy as long as they pose less of a danger to the public.

No ‘cure’

Even now, after years of therapy, Williams rejects the idea that he can be “cured,” like someone with a disease. In his view, sex crimes result from underlying feelings of rejection and resentment that can be “managed,” but never cured.

Williams talks openly about his urges, even identifying his “most likely type of victim” in a relapse-prevention plan he submitted to the court. He described the person as “an attractive woman with a shapely figure in an unexpected peeking situation.”

While in custody, Williams said, he underwent a “spiritual awakening” and has developed a strong network of friends who keep him “accountable and honest.” He prays daily, and often touches the photos of his daughters to remember why he should never reoffend. On Sunday mornings, he participates in a worship service transmitted to him remotely through two of his close friends, Dee and Tom McLellan, of Maple Grove. A Christian support group has already invited him to attend its weekly meetings, should he be released.

Asked if he could guarantee that he would never commit another sex offense, Williams shook his head. “You can never be sure you’re not going to reoffend. You can never be sure of that,” he said. “I agree with that because once you’ve done something, it’s easier the next time.”

Last summer, Williams asked for permission to attend his stepmother’s funeral, and was surprised when MSOP administrators said yes. It was the first time Williams had ever seen several of his youngest grandchildren. With two security guards watching, he gave them pretend embraces, encircling them with his hands.

Touching was prohibited.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308 Twitter: @chrisserres

726: Number of sex offenders confined at MSOP.

4 percent: MSOP offenders as a percentage of all registered sex offenders, statewide.

2: MSOP offenders approved for discharge in past 20 years.

6: Approved for discharge in last 14 months.

Annual cost to taxpayers: $90.3 million

Source: Minnesota Department of Human Services