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Ruling could mean the first ever total release from the MN Sex Offender Program

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A 26-year-old man who has been in a secure institution since before he was an adult is on the verge of becoming the first person ever released from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program unconditionally.

Eric Terhaar was put into the program as a 19-year-old. His childhood was turbulent – abandoned by his birth mother while his father was in prison, at 2 years old he was later left at a daycare by his grandmother.

Aggressive behavior later landed him in a California juvenile facility, where he was sexually abused multiple times. He also reported sexually abusing some of his developmentally disabled siblings.

At the age of 14 he entered a "secure" facility – and he's been in such a setting since, moving from KidsPeace Mesabi Academy to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in 2009.

That's where Terhaar has spent the past six years – not as a prisoner, but as one of the 700-plus "civilly committed" persons in the program, who are essentially locked up at one of two high-security facilities (in Moose Lake or St. Peter) for an indefinite period of time.

You can count on one hand the number of people who have been released from the program in its 20-year history, and even then only provisionally.

But a ruling from a Minnesota Supreme Court Appeals Panel this week means Terhaar could be let out, without conditions, in what would be a first for the troubled program.

What the ruling says

In the ruling (which you can read in full here), the panel says Terhaar isn't a danger to the public, and doesn't need the type of treatment or supervision the MSOP provides.

Expert testimony has noted Terhaar does not have a sexual disorder, which means the chance he re-offends is lower. He's also gone out into the community without incident, and visits to his father's home have been called productive.

He had some minor non-sexual infractions while in the program, but things have gotten better. And the panel's order notes it's not surprising he'd struggle with rules, considering he's been in an institutional setting – and surrounded by other rulebreakers – nearly his entire life.

"He has never had the opportunity to learn social norms or mature in a natural way," the order says.

In addition, the panel says he doesn't need the treatment or supervision the Minnesota Sex Offender Program offers, and writes that his needs are best met out in the community. Terhaar plans to live with his father initially. That structure, coupled with his desire to go to therapy, "will provide for adequate safety to the public," the order says.

In addition, Terhaar's reason for being confined now no longer resembles the original reason he ended up in the program, the panel says, and is unconstitutional.

"Simply put, Respondent does not belong at [the Minnesota Sex Offender Program] and may never have."

The panel's order is stayed for 15 days, and the state can file an appeal.

If the order goes through, Terhaar would be the first person ever released from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program unconditionally.

The Minnesota Sex Offender Program was ruled unconstitutional by a U.S. District Judge last year.

He found offenders were committed to its maximum-security centers in St. Peter and Moose Lake with little hope of ever being released.

The judge ordered the state to make a series of changes to the program, including ordering case reviews of the 700-plus patients currently committed.

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