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Minnesota officials seeking way to release sex offenders

ST. PAUL – Many Minnesotans may be perfectly happy to see sex offenders tossed behind bars, with jailers throwing away the keys.

However, a federal judge said the system Minnesota uses is too close to the throw-away-the-key philosophy, which he said violates the U.S. Constitution.

He threatens to take action if Minnesota leaders do not change the system.

If that change does not come in the legislative session that ends May 20, the judge could order the state to make expensive changes and order state officials to release offenders.

A Senate committee Monday night began legislators’ first step to meet the judge’s demands when it discussed a way to let sex offenders who have completed prison sentences to complete treatment and be released.

The bill by Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, would continue state supervision after release from treatment.

Lawmakers hope they can prevent federal action.

Former Minnesota Chief Justice Eric Magnuson is chairman of a task force the judge ordered to draw up recommendations.

Magnuson said the state needs to do something, “even if it isn’t a complete solution,” said in an interview.

“People don’t fully understand what a federal judge can do,” Magnuson said.

Minnesota law allows state judges to indefinitely commit serious sex offenders who complete their prison sentences to a treatment program in a locked state hospital. Only one sex offender has been released from the program.

At the end of last year, state hospitals in Moose Lake and St. Peter were treating 678 sex offenders.

The number of sex offenders committed to the treatment program grew greatly after the high-profile case of Dru Sjodin.

The University of North Dakota student was kidnapped from a Grand Forks, N.D., mall in 2003, and a sex offender released earlier in the year was convicted in her murder. Her body was recovered months later near Crookston.

“We are very aware of the importance of public safety, of the concern people have about this issue,” Magnuson said. “On the other hand, the Constitution has to be followed. There are better ways to ensure protection both of the constitutional rights of these committed persons and public safety.”

Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said Sheran’s bill should meet with the judge’s approval and keep him from taking action against the state.

“This would meet the recommendation of the task force,” said Lourey, who has been a chief proponent of finding an alternative to the current system.

More importantly, he added, if the bill passes it should “show that Minnesota is serious” when the judge decides whether to take action.

Magnuson warned that U.S. Chief Magistrate Arthur J. Boylan could do like a California colleague did: Release a large number of offenders.

Minnesota is one of 20 states to allow judges to commit sex offenders to treatment after serving their sentences. The law is based on the fear that sex offenders could reoffend if allowed back into society.

“The notion that you can lock someone up for something they might do in the future is difficult,” Magnuson said.

The former chief justice said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that state laws can keep people locked up to prevent future crimes, but “you have to have them in some type of program that offers treatment. You can’t just lock them away and throw away the key.”

Sex offenders in the program filed a federal lawsuit saying their rights have been hampered since only one person has left the program.

“No one has really successfully graduated from the program,” Magnuson said. “And that is a big constitutional issue.”

“The state has to create some less restrictive alternatives ... but at the same time to do everything possible to protect the public,” he added.

The judge will begin to take action if lawmakers do not act, Magnuson said. If so, he warned, his action will be “a broadsword; it is not a scalpel.”

He “may order the state of Minnesota to do things that would not be very effective,” Magnuson said.

Minnesotans need to realize that not everyone should be locked up forever, Magnuson said. “There are people who are locked up with no real hope of ever getting out who could have been treated and maybe could have been returned to their families and their communities.”

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.