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Releasing Sex Offenders

April 17, 2012 03:34:00 am
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The Moose Lake sex offender facility in Minnesota Photo via forensicpsychologist.blogspot.com

In February, a Minnesota judicial panel ordered the release of 64-year-old Clarence Opheim, a convicted child molester who had served nearly 20 years in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in St. Peter.

Before being committed to St. Peter, Opheim had served a five-year prison sentence for molesting an 11-year old boy. (He also has admitted to molesting nearly 30 other children.) He is currently the only sex offender to ever be successfully released from the state’s Sex Offender Program.

The historic significance of the moment, however, was lost on many residents of Golden Valley, Minn.

Before Opheim’s scheduled release in March, according to news reports, concerned residents of the town packed a community meeting hall to hear the terms of Opheim’s release, meet his social worker, and express their fears of living alongside a convicted sex offender.

Although Opheim will live in a halfway house, be accompanied by a social worker in public at all times, be forced to consent to regular polygraph testing, and wear a GPS tracking device, residents were still uneasy. 

“Why wasn’t he left in the St. Peter community?” asked one. “I don’t understand why he had to move.”

Others at the town hall meeting asked officials why it had been  decided to release an  accused predator into a community with so many children.

“We think it’s time,” Assistant Hennepin County Attorney George Widseth answered. “Is there a way [that we] can take a dipstick and run it down his throat…for a certain measurement? No.”

But he didn’t reveal the state’s own uncertainties about whether to continue the kind of post-custodial oversight that is required to ensure that Opheim never molests a child again.

Minnesota is one of 20 states that have civil commitment programs, which allow for the indefinite detention of sexual offenders after their criminal sentences are completed. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Please click here for a legislative audit done by Minnesota officials in March 2011.

In order for offenders to be held under the program, a court must determine whether they are sexually violent predators, incapable of controlling their impulses, and too dangerous to be allowed back into communities.

In 1997 the U.S. Supreme Court in Kansas v. Hendricks held that civil commitment programs are constitutional if the commitment is non-punitive. 

Expansion of Programs

In the early 1990s, states with flush budgets began expanding their civil commitment programs to include sex offenders, as part of a tough-on-crime approach to high-profile, brutal sex crimes. 

At the time, civil commitment once seemed the best solution to protect communities from released offenders who may once again commit brutal crimes. 

Under what are usually called “Sexually Violent Predator” laws, prosecutors could file petitions to commit offenders if they believed those offenders were likely to re-commit.

Offenders are evaluated by court psychologists who must prove that they are unable to control their impulses. 

Since there is no accepted or scientifically valid way to predict whether an offender will commit another crime, psychologists usually use an assessment tool called the Static 99 to evaluate risk, which rates sex offenders on standard criteria, including the sex of their victim(s) and number of crimes.

The Static 99 was created by psychologists R. Karl Hanson, Ph.D. and David Thorton, Ph.D.

Scores are then compared to recidivism rates of similar sex offenders. Once an offender is committed, the laws stipulate they must have access to treatment.

But ballooning costs and new court challenges are forcing state leaders to re-think. 

States like Minnesota are finding that, while there’s no easy way to “measure” whether a sex offender is ready to be reintegrated into a community, budget concerns and court challenges have made detaining them indeterminately no longer an option.

“At the beginning, there was a genuine thought that these were going to bonafide treatment programs,” said Eric Janus, Dean of the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.

“The idea was that people might be committed for several years, and they’d work their  way through a real treatment program and a majority of them would be released. But it did not develop in that way.”

Facilities differ.

Washington, the first state to pass a civil commitment law, holds nearly 300 sex offenders on an island in Puget Sound. The offenders are “Level 3,” the most dangerous category of sexual predators.

The imposing facility is bordered by concertina wire, but residents are allowed to roam the inside of the facility relatively freely. They participate voluntarily in group therapy sessions.

Others are more state-of-the-art. A $388 million, 1,500-bed facility in Coalinga, California has stores, a library and a barbershop.

Both states, and many others, are struggling with runaway costs of the programs, totaling into the millions—especially at a time of budget restraints..

Offenders typically remain committed for years, sometimes decades. The number of offenders released differs from state to state—Wisconsin has released nearly 70 offenders, while Pennsylvania has released only one—but generally it is difficult to be released from commitment.

$180,000 a Year 

On average, civil commitment programs cost taxpayers more than four times what it costs to imprison someone for a year. The most expensive programs can cost up to $180,000 a year, per sex offender. 

Lengthy civil commitment cases can cost states thousands, or millions, in legal expenses.

“Civil commitment is like a roach motel,” said Al O’Connor, an attorney with the New York State Defenders Association. “They go in, but they don’t come out.”

New York State’s program costs over $170,000 per year.

“Every year,” added O’Connor. “it becomes a greater and greater drain on the mental health budget.” 

Toward the end of the 1990’s state budgets began to tighten, but the civilly committed population continued to rise.

In Minnesota, according to Janus, “the buildings were filling up. The bureaucrats were coming to the legislators and saying, ‘We need millions to build more buildings. That was contradictory to the nation that these programs were stop gap measures.”

“They wound up this machine and they can’t politically stop it,” O’Connor said of New York’s law. “Once you have the law, you can’t stop putting people in the facility, because god forbid, one gets out and they go and do something. It becomes a scandal.”

Political pressure, both in state legislatures and judicial districts, often makes it exceedingly difficult to release offenders.  It’s a common aphorism that the only way to leave St. Peter’s, and other civil commitment facilities across the country, is in a body bag.

In 2003, just as officials were crafting plans to begin releasing low-level offenders back into communities, a Minnesota sex offender named Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. abducted and murdered a 22-year-old North Dakota college student after he completed a 23-year sentence for attempted abduction.

After then-Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty pledged not to release any sex offenders, Minnesota’s committed population exploded. Current attempts to reform Minnesota’s program—and increase opportunities for release—have fallen short after a 2011 legislative audit pointed out it was becoming financially untenable.

“Almost all the legislation that exists now is based on the exception, rather than the rule,” said Dr. Fred Berlin, director of the Sexual Behavior Consultation Unit at Johns Hopkins. “It’s legislation enacted when a horrible crime with lots of publicity occurs. It begs the question of whether we’re really going to have the most effective public policy.”

“It’s a radical concept,” Berlin added. “What we’re basically saying is we’re going to deprive someone of their liberty, based on a future crime we fear they’re going to commit.”

Court Challenges

The slim likelihood of release from commitment has been the basis for many lawsuits against states’ sexually violent predator laws. 

The US Supreme Court has upheld state and federal sexually violent predator laws partly because the programs purport to treat sex offenders with the goal of releasing them back into the community.

However, the Supreme Court also ruled in Kansas v. Hendricks, that mental health treatment is “merely an ancillary, rather than an overriding, state concern,” and programs do not necessarily become punitive if they fail to offer adequate treatment.

But problems within the system go beyond a failure to provide mental health treatment. The campus of the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peters, where Clarence Opheim was released from the Sex Offender Program, has recently been rocked by scandal. In late March, CEO David Proffitt, who ran the portion of the hospital for dangerous and mentally ill patients,  was fired after reports of rampant mismanagement. The state's Office of the Legislative Auditor is now investigating the facility as well as the hiring practices of the Department of Human Services. 

Meanwhile, the committed continue to challenge the laws for those put away after conviction. 

Sex offenders have filed reams of pro se filings over the years. A handful have moved into higher courts, and some states have been ordered to improve conditions or treatment programs at their facilities.

Early this year, before judges approved the release of Clarence Opheim, a Minneapolis-based law firm took up two suits against Minnesota’s program—including a class action suit on behalf of 14 plaintiffs currently housed in Minnesota’s Moose Lake facility. 

David Goodwin, part of the team that’s litigating the case, said the plaintiffs allege they are not receiving adequate mental health treatment, and are being housed in a criminal facility without criminal protections of due process.

Goodwin said detainees at Moose Lake are subject to unannounced search and seizures and are locked in their cell-like rooms for ten hours a day.

“As a person off the street you walk in and think, my goodness, this is certainly a prison,” Goodwin said. “There’s double razor wire, and cameras, and guards in every room. It’d be hard to argue that it’s not a prison.”

Moose Lake did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

Minnesota officials’ fear that the suits could successfully challenge its civil commitment law precipitated Opheim’s release into Golden Valley.

Lawmakers in Minnesota and other states have suggested extending sentences for sex offenders.  Prison, where states don’t have the burden of providing mental health treatment, costs less than civil commitment facilities.

“Many of these people do need treatment,” Berlin said. “If people say, let’s just give them all tougher sentences, put them in prison and do nothing else, there’s nothing in prison that will erase these attractions or successfully help them resist acting upon them.”

Berlin said he advocates for inclusion of outpatient treatment, and structured transition programs into communities, into civil commitment programs.

“We need a criminal justice component,” he added. “But we also need a public health component.”

Political Space’ Needed 

Last January, William Mitchell held a symposium on Minnesota’s civil commitment program. A number of key legislators and officials attended, Janus said, and agreed that “there needed to be political space to make changes both in the admissions side, as well as the discharge side.”

It was a positive step, Janus said, adding, “What political leaders have hoped for in the past is that they could take care of the problem by tweaking the criminal sentencing rules.”

“But even if you increase the length of sentences there will always be sex offenders getting out of prison,” he continued. “Inevitably, there’s always the potential that someone will commit a recidivist crime. Prosecutors know that they could be held responsible for those crimes if they fail to use the available tools.”

Some states, however, have experienced successful release of sex offenders. 

Arizona has released the most sex offenders out of any state, with 69 in provisional release and 81 fully discharged, as of 2006.

Daniel Montaldi, who served as the former director of Arizona’s civil commitment facility until 2010, recalled that the state began  accepting residents into its facility, located on the grounds of the state hospital in South Phoenix, in 1999.

The facility was built to hold 300 people, said Montaldi, who now works in Florida’s civil commitment program. “It was meant to be a mostly full confinement program, and people weren’t meant to get out.”

Less Restrictive Alternative

But Arizona’s sexually violent predator law allows for the committed to participate in a Less Restrictive Alternative, or LRA.

Around 2003, Montaldi said, “we took half of our administration building and made it a halfway house for offenders who had done really well in treatment. They could start off by having one outing a week, or month, where they could go out into the community with a staff member present.

“They would have GPS monitoring. Then you could progress gradually, where the guy could go out into the community by himself, and he could go to work, and our surveillance team would monitor him.”

Offenders who had progressed that far in the program would eventually be given a sponsor, be forced to submit to polygraph tests and physical surveillance.

 “The advantage in Arizona was we could base our LRA program in the facility itself, but he would gradually pick up some freedoms, where the last step was living in the community after he’d already proven himself with the freedoms he already had,” said Montaldi. 

“You didn’t have this dilemma where, ‘I’ve either got to lock him up completely or have him living in a neighborhood.’ ”

“The legislature,” he added, “also didn’t pay a lot of attention to the program,” he added. “It was the idea that if you stay out of the newspapers and you don’t have re-offenses or escapes, we’re not going to interfere a lot. That gave us the room to innovate.”

But when the facility suffered an escape in 2010, officials were forced to rein in its LRA program.

“An extensively developed community reintegration program is a fragile flower,” Montaldi said. “It’s very vulnerable, because suppose the guy is in the community and he escapes. You may catch him the next day, but if it makes the news, you’re going to get a strong reaction.”

With the Arizona model, he said, “you’re taking some risks that you wouldn’t be taking if you just put them behind walls and left them there forever. But our view was [that,] eventually, these guys are going to get out.

“At some point, a federal judge could shut this all down. At some point, the whole thing could go away, and you’ll have a whole lot of guys who have had no experience in the community, and suddenly, they’re out there.”

“The other part of what’s going to happen is that these guys are getting old,” Montaldi added, “You’re going to have the problem of needing nursing homes for sex offenders.”

Hannah Rappleye is a freelance reporter in Brooklyn, NY and a frequent contributor to The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

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Posted by Shana Rowan
Tuesday, May 01, 2012 03:26

One of the biggest issues here is the broad brush our society, politicians and even treatment programs use to paint everyone branded with the label “sex offender”.

Even the comments here display a total lack of basic understanding about the truth about sex crime. Pedophiles? Less than 2% of registrants are diagnosed pedophiles. Serial rapists? Another small minority of the 750k people on the registry. A quarter of all registrants are CHILDREN themselves, guilty of consensual relationships with people under the legal age of consent, or even engaging in normal childhood exploration and curiosity. Most people on the registry do not have child victims, and most are not violent. In fact, many have families and children of their own.

95% of all sex crimes are committed by people with no prior convictions for one. Does our society truly value revenge more than the prevention of new crimes? Your call.

Posted by juanita
Monday, April 23, 2012 08:22

my son was charge with rape two differnt times he didn’t do it the uncle told me so and this time he did’nt do it he was lied on and i’m not saying my son is and angle, but what i am saying is that the truth should be told , it’s now a secret but it will come out one day. GOD BLESS U ALL

Posted by Donna Carbone
Wednesday, April 18, 2012 04:01

There’s no denying that changes need to be made to the sex offender registry. Someone caught urinating against a building or tree because a bathroom is not available is guilty of nothing more than poor bladder control. However, in cases where an individual has been found guilty of assaulting an adult or child, lifetime incarceration is the only recourse. Recidivism rates are a faulty gauge of whether or not sexual offenders can be cured/treated successfully. If all offenders released back into society committed the same crime but only 10% of those crimes are reported – and if only half of that 10% are found guilty — then it could be claimed that the recidivism rate was 5%. That would, obviously, not be true. Until people are convinced that there is no shame in reporting crimes of sexual assault, we will never have an accurate measure of how prevalent rape is in our society.

Posted by Shelly Stow
Wednesday, April 18, 2012 02:04

“… sex offenders generally should be retained in custody until they are incapable of committing another sex crime regardless of the cost.”
All sex offenders? Ten year old children who are on the registry for normal curiosity and experimentation? Teenage lovers, many of whom are now married to each other and raising families? Those who solicited prostitutes in a state that makes this a registerable offense? Teens and young adults on the registry for sexting? The multitude of misdemeanor offenses that come under the category of “public exposure” such as public urination, “flashing,” “streaking,” and “mooning”? And how about those who were convicted or forced to take a plea based on a false allegation? They are still sex offenders in the eyes of the law. The number on the registry is approaching a million. The Justice Dept. has said that somewhere between 5 and 6% are dangerous. Many states are going bankrupt now trying to monitor hundreds of thousands of low-risk and non-dangerous registrants. Keeping them all locked up? I guess we could close all of the schools and turn them into prisons. That sounds like it would serve society well.

Posted by rich mckone
Wednesday, April 18, 2012 11:22

Although relatively low in frequency, sex crimes, particularly those against children, are obviously a high priority crime for the criminal justice system. Sex offenders have a relatively low statistical risk of reoffending but the consequences when they do commit another sex crime are extremely high. Both factors have to be considered in dealing with sex offenders – statistical risk and the “stakes “(potential harm to society) of a subsequent sex crime. Stakes, the public’s rational concerns regarding sex offenders, particularly those who commit crimes against children, far outweigh concerns about the risk of recidivism. It makes little difference if the risk of reoffending is low – the public is right in unwilling to accept any risk. Coupled with the fact that treatment of sex offenders is generally not effective, sex offenders generally should be retained in custody until they are incapable of committing another sex crime regardless of the cost.

Posted by Shelly Stow
Wednesday, April 18, 2012 10:06

“Once a pedophile/rapist, always a pedophile/rapist! "
This is, perhaps, the most ludicrous statement every made as pertains to sex offenders.
First, it misleads by innuendo as to the correct usage of the word “pedophile.” It is a medical/psychological diagnosis designating an adult with a primary sexual attraction to prepubescent children.
Many pedophiles have never inappropriately touched a child. Most pedophiles who do choose their victims from their circle of family members and friends’ children, and those folk, once caught, have a very, very low recidivism rate.
Making such statements ignores the body of evidence attesting to the efficacy of treatment and therapy. It ignores the huge and growing body of evidence attesting to a very low overall recidivism rate for registrants. It ignores the fact that 95% of sexual crime is committed by those with no previous arrests for sexual offenses, and this was true ten years before the registry was mandated into law and remains true today.

It should come as no surprise that “ignore” and “ignorance” have the same root.

Posted by Shelly Stow
Wednesday, April 18, 2012 09:47

 "Once a pedophile/rapist, always a pedophile/rapist! "
This is, perhaps, the most ludicrous statement every made as pertains to sex offenders.
First, it misleads by innuendo as to the correct usage of the word “pedophile.” It is a medical/psychological diagnosis designating an adult with a primary sexual attraction to prepubescent children.
Many pedophiles have never inappropriately touched a child. Most pedophiles who do choose their victims from their circle of family members and friends’ children, and those folk, once caught, have a very, very low recidivism rate.
Making such statements ignores the body of evidence attesting to the efficacy of treatment and therapy. It ignores the huge and growing body of evidence attesting to a very low overall recidivism rate for registrants. It ignores the fact that 95% of sexual crime is committed by those with no previous arrests for sexual offenses, and this was true ten years before the registry was mandated into law and remains true today.

It should come as no surprise that “ignore” and “ignorance” have the same root.

Posted by Ray Knutson
Wednesday, April 18, 2012 09:35

Just a litle correction here. Clarence Opheim was not released from the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter. He was a resident of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (both are in St. Peter). It is true that the Security Hospital CEO, David Proffitt was let go, and the Legislative Auditor is investigating hiring practices of the Department of Human Services, but that does not affect sex offenders since the David Proffitt was only in charge o teh Security Hospital. Dennis Benson is the CEO of the Sex Offender Program. I am not aware of any hiring scandals there currently.

Posted by Donna Carbone
Tuesday, April 17, 2012 04:12

“Since there is no accepted or scientifically valid way to predict whether an offender will commit another crime, …”

This is, perhaps, the most ludicrous statement every made as pertains to sex offenders. Once a pedophile/rapist, always a pedophile/rapist! The only way to guarantee that pedophiles and rapists will not continue attacking innocent victims is to keep them incarcerated… or put them to death. When will we stop thinking with a calculator and start thinking with our brains? It is ridiculous to believe for even a second that persons who commit these heinous acts can be cured? Remember, a penis is a weapon, and it is just as dangerous as a gun or a knife. Death takes many forms. Not all corpses wind up in a cemetery.

Posted by Keith Richard Radford Jr
Tuesday, April 17, 2012 03:10

So you say you want to end Genocide?
There is a faction since the late 60’s who
learned to take one side of an issue to better
fight for the other side of that same issue.
It’s call social media.

These people will set up a web site for the
end of the death penalty in order to get
information to better impose their agenda.

Amy Kolbchar has got to be one of the
most prolific genocide promoters on this
Planet. Sex laws make transients or
political prisoners. When their transients
then they can be killed quietly and without
You think I am joking try Googling “murdered
transient” and you get about 450million hits,
but do that online in news and get a page or
two of information. Nameless thousands were
buried in a mass grave memorial in Glendale Ca.
just a month ago all unidentified persons.
The political right wingNuts will sacrifice
their children, go to jail, harm others,
blow up doctors, lawyers, and even mutilate
themselves and others over sex, who has
some,,, or not. Seems perfectly healthy
too them, (case in point I come from one of
these such families who back in the 50’s
feared escalators so much that they got
together with other such families and fead
a child to one in the Seattle Washington area
yet they would say in esence don’t touch my
daughter but I can feed her to an escalator?)
 and that is why during my life
of following the political arena the same
right wingNuts have the same message and
the same complaints and the same solutions
which have failed us all the same way yet
no matter how many times they iron the same
shirt the same wrinkles are there. Sex is
something people do and life is far too short
for sex laws. No matter how many times/what
sacrifice they make its just people
manipulating people through laws that
make them powerful. Look at the cyber
so called threat, don’t you see they want
this control, their own pipe in plumbing
like Stevens would say, insulated from/for
control like prisons with no cameras inside
Supreme court with no camera and even when
there is one and the tape is asked for by
a judge their control allows them to send
partial information.
You don’t know what goes on in there and you
trust the ,,, huh? Sex laws make rich scandals
and poor crimes who own homes, businesses in
competition with outer businesses and people
wonder why most small businesses fail in the first
year as pressures increase and someone makes
a mistake, political power wants a auto shop out
of the area and sends some hot chick in to exchange
sex for the bill only to ruin them. I can go on but
you get the picture,,, right?, and if we
think the left is any better, at the top
they are all the same and have strings attached
to the same agenda, people, money direction
puppeteers with one track minds and we wonder
why most just vote no on everything?
Every move begets more pain from government
who is here to help us all? Right into more war,
more damage, more weapons with expiration
dates, and more excuses why we should use
them and sex seems to work. It’s worked for
so many years we are paying now to park on
the street in front of our own homes unless
we have an exemption sticker and who
dispenses those?
Lets get real someday and stop living in a make
believe worlds developed by long term planers
with billions to invest in their own futures
that include the drain of the many for the
maintenance of the few who need so desperately
to tell us all how to live and what to do when
life is far too short.

See years ago some people got the right to
work with some transportation laws concerning
auto safety but were not satisfied with helping
people drive safer cars by designing them to
absorb the energy in an accident, they wanted
to absorb the energy of our lives.

Later they passed laws incorporating religious
ideals calling the safety regulations and
incorporated missing children. Over time they
have evolved into a subcultures of complete
imbeciles passing laws catering to people who
see dead people and use the media to build
into the myth that everything is some supernatural
evil. That can never be the excuse used to
explain away what people are doing concerning
sex laws. There is always someone telling someone
what to do or who to do it to and usually the
one saying they are in authority will set you
up to be the patsy, case of event some kid tells
another they are the one in authority,
(the hall monitor as it were sleeping with the
vice principle maybe?) and the
other likes being forced to kiss. Chances are
that one telling the other has already done that
and struck out and is by use of the directed
action gets that second chance after the new
prospect strikes out. I’m not sure how better to
explain but kids use adults, adults use kids
especially when they are to busy to do everything
themselves, that’s why there is a page system
in Washington, a intern system in education
and so forth. Pages will struggle for position
with other pages, interns do the same and
who wins, the most ruthless?

This is a policy of ours just like the policy
of having someone set up with a bait car or
the policy of a DEA agent offering to sell
drugs or a FBI agent offering cocane to an
auto manufacture to stop someone from getting
powerful enough to build cars in the case of
The Delorean Motor Company, we have people
in power willing to harm others for the power
to lord over others. We saw this when a Baptist
 church group was stopped from taking children
from the Island of Jamaica after a tsunami
for what, adoption? These kids parents may
or may not have died but International laws
were being ignored. Children were being trafficked
and still whole provinces will pool together
to get their kids in a box to be shipped to
America to work in the sex trade to build their
town a church, temple or synagog and is this
the thing one church wants to stop over another
church for control like a theater chain over
 another theater chain in some cosmic struggle?

Laws intruding on people concerning sex and
must be abolished because people who turn
a transportation safety department into
a mess we have now need to be stopped now.
They are responsible for their actions since the outcome
is a hidden Genocide being conducted in America by a few
mentally disturbed people that have changed auto safety
laws into a way to latterly make people nameless and kill them.
Ask corneal Klink if we don’t think we are next, and what it did for Europe in the 30’s and 40’s. Now everyone knows sex offenders have the lowest rate of re-offence and the torture they have endured along with the human experiments that have been conducted on them is why they so much want to hold on to their indefinite detention because if it gets out what these people have done they will be before international courts for sure. Now most importantly is the controversy over “INDEFINITE DETENTION” See; the conditions by which sex offenders are living in these places waiting for legislators to pass laws that allow then to be put to death will come out. The human experiments and programs that these people that actually feel they are doing god’s work by murdering people will be exposed, and will it be so late that all America will be humiliated more than Germany when they are doing all they can to bring this information to the for front and being blocked by media or when Malaysia a country where you can get life in prison for masterbation just denounced indefinite detention, do you think they don’t know what’s up? Are we all that hateful toward one another that we are going to allow some bitter old spinsters the ability to master laws that will walk us into such horrible conditions? It is time to pull back the covers because we know that they have been lying to us to go to war, about Tillman, about 911 and about healthcare. Do we have any humanity left?
We have given them an inch and they think their rulers.

Posted by Gabriel
Tuesday, April 17, 2012 01:24

This is a very controversial issue…

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