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Pawlenty wants longer sex offender sentences

Gov. Tim Pawlenty announces Tuesday that he wants first-degree sex offender sentences to more than double, to 25 years. Legislators gave his idea a mixed reaction. Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants to double some sex offender sentences, the latest in a series of related moves over the years.

Under the plan the Republican governor announced Tuesday, a first-degree sex offender would receive a sentence of at least 25 years, compared to 12 years now.

Pawlenty's plan received mixed reaction from key Democratic lawmakers.

Sen. Mary Olson of Bemidji, vice chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she likes extending prison sentences. However, Judiciary Finance Chairman Leo Foley of Coon Rapids, a retired state trooper, said he would prefer to spend money on rehabilitating sex offenders than just keeping them in prison longer.

"It's not really going to do anything," Foley said of Pawlenty's plan.

Pawlenty summed up his philosophy about sex offenders: "They need to be kept off the street for as long as possible."

The governor said his proposal would cost the state no more than $5 million, and no increase in cost would come for years.

While he won legislative approval to give life sentences to some who are convicted of particularly heinous sex crimes, Pawlenty said that did not go far enough.

In the past, he has suggested the death penalty for some especially heinous crimes, which has not passed.

Tuesday's proposal is the latest in a series from both parties to get tough on sex offenders, and longer sentences have been approved. The movement began after the death of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin in 2003 and the arrest of convicted sex offender Alfonso Rodriguez in the crime. Sjodin's body was found near Crookston.

Sex offender numbers have risen 41 percent in the past decade, with 1,646 in Minnesota prisons now, Corrections Commissioner Joan Fabian said.

While calling for increased sentences, Pawlenty also asked the Legislature to approve $89 million to expand a Moose Lake facility to hold more sex offenders who have completed their prison terms.

State law requires sex offenders most deemed to reoffend to be sent indefinitely to the sex offender program for treatment, but no one ever has been released.

Public works funding bills written by legislative Democrats do not include the Moose Lake funding. However, Pawlenty said, the bills include funding for projects that are much less important such as civic centers in Mankato, Rochester and St. Cloud.

Last year, the state Corrections Department examined records of 850 sex offenders and recommended 114 of them be sent to Moose Lake.

Pawlenty said that "it is very difficult to treat them."

Foley disagreed, calling for more emphasis on treatment than Pawlenty wants.

As a lawyer, Olson said, she fears the treatment program could be ruled unconstitutional because people sent there never get out. Olson and Pawlenty both said cost also is a concern for offenders in Moose Lake, which costs $325 a day for each offender, compared to $63 for prisoners.

On the other hand, she has been talking about increasing prison sentences, much like Pawlenty wants.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.