Capitol Offenses

State legislators are poised for a spending spree--on stadiums and prisons

Pawlenty also made some substantive changes in state policy. Most notably, he has instructed county attorneys to track down 145 high-risk sex offenders who have been released from Minnesota prisons since 1997 and review their case files in conjunction with the Department of Corrections and the Attorney General's office to determine if they should be civilly committed to a treatment facility. If the county attorneys do not recommend commitment, Pawlenty adds, he is giving Hatch the authority to overrule them. A similar review system will be used on 94 sex offenders who have completed or are about to complete their prison sentences. This backlog has occurred in part because Pawlenty responded to the Star Tribune story and Hatch's criticism of his lax commitment standards by ordering the corrections department not to release any high-level sex offenders without a court order.

Irked that he wasn't consulted about these enormous additional responsibilities, Hatch said he would bill the counties $5,000 for each commitment case his office reviews. But the suddenly swamped county attorneys will have enough trouble coming up with overtime pay for their own personnel as they struggle to comply with Pawlenty's request. It doesn't help that last year's state budget cuts eliminated $590,000 that was specifically earmarked to reimburse local governments for their assessment of sex offenders.

With the Sjodin tragedy still vivid in people's minds, and with the highest statewide officeholder from each of the two major parties feuding over perceived lapses in public safety, it's a foregone conclusion that legislators will create longer prison sentences and increase the state's capacity for the civil commitment of sex offenders during this session. But as always, the devil will be in the details.

For example, as part of his bonding bill, the governor has already proposed borrowing $109 million to add 851 beds at the state prisons in Faribault and Stillwater, and another $3 million to plan for a 150-bed expansion of the treatment facility in St. Peter, where most of Minnesota's civilly committed sex offenders are housed. If Pawlenty puts prison-bed construction on a fast track while dawdling in the planning stage of the treatment center expansion, his bonding priorities may prevent him from following through on the legislative policies he has proposed in his crime bill to isolate violent sex offenders from the public.

Unless he has sent Hatch and the county attorneys on a wild goose chase, the tougher, more thorough case review Pawlenty has ordered on Level 3 sex offenders who have been released since 1997 will likely result in a large increase in civil commitments. The ranks of the committed will continue to soar if the legislature approves Pawlenty's proposal to require the Department of Corrections to seek civil commitments on any Level 3 sex offenders who are scheduled for release.

At the press conference where Pawlenty announced his crime bill, Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno estimated that the number of civil commitments will rise by as much as 50 percent a year. Yet at a Senate hearing early last week, Corrections Commissioner Joan Fabian said that the state's two treatment facilities for sex offenders are already close to capacity.

Where are these dangerous offenders going to be treated? The state can't keep them in prison, because they've already served their sentences. And the traditional solution of releasing inmates convicted of lesser crimes in order to make room for new arrivals obviously doesn't apply here. Of the 200 offenders committed to treatment in St. Peter or Moose Lake since the program began in 1994, only one has ever been released--and he's now back inside after violating his parole.

This raises the inconvenient and certainly unpopular matter of the offenders' constitutional rights. Minnesota's sex offender commitment program has consistently survived court challenges because the commitment process has been judicious, because there are programs and facilities specifically designed to rehabilitate sex offenders, and because there is at least the theoretical chance that offenders will eventually be released back into the community. By contrast, if the corrections department makes blanket commitment referrals for all Level 3 offenders, if lack of space prevents offenders from being housed in a treatment facility, and if no offender ever gets out, then there is a good chance that the program could be declared unconstitutional by the courts. It is the duty of Pawlenty and state legislators to ensure that the program is operated in a manner that prevents that from happening.

Because neither party wants to be viewed as "soft on crime" in the wake of sustained public outcry over Sjodin's disappearance, and because there are only so many ways you can be "tough on crime," their legislative proposals are very similar. Both are in favor of ankle bracelet monitors to track sex offenders out in the community who are not deemed to need commitment. Both propose longer sentences for those who commit violent crimes. One difference is that while Republicans are advocating mandatory life in prison without parole for those who commit heinous sexual assaults where cruelty or a vulnerable victim is involved, Democrats favor more "indeterminate," case-specific sentencing so that someone who has committed a brutal rape doesn't feel he has nothing to lose by killing his victim.

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