Issues Sjodin case raised need answers a decade later

Magnuson

By Don Davis

Dru Sjodin’s kidnapping from a Grand Forks, N.D., shopping mall 10 years ago this week began a discussion about what Minnesota should do with sex offenders, a discussion nearing a time for decisions.

The question is whether those decisions will be made by state officials or by a federal judge who in following the federal Constitution may not do what Minnesotans would prefer.

At issue is a Minnesota law, similar to one in a few other states, that allows a state judge to commit a sex offender who has served his prison sentence to a jail-like treatment center until he graduates from the program.

“Can you box someone up for a crime they haven’t committed,” former Minnesota Chief Justice Eric Magnuson said is the question a federal judge is considering.

At least part of the answer is available. The federal judge expects a task force Magnuson heads to draw up proposals for how Minnesota can release sex offenders who are treated after prison in “civil commitment.” Then, the Legislature must enact legislation.

Magnuson, whose task force is due to release its ideas in a couple of weeks, said the lawsuit by sex offenders that is in front of the judge could result in mass releases, although Magnuson said that he cannot read the judge’s mind.

The former chief justice’s comments came Monday as a state Senate committee caught up on latest developments.

The committee did not note Friday’s upcoming anniversary of Sjodin’s kidnapping, but did acknowledge that her case was the beginning of a surge of sex offender civil commitments, the time sex offenders spend in a jail-like facility after serving their prison terms.

Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. of Crookston, Minn., was convicted in federal court of Sjodin’s kidnapping and death in 2003. Earlier that year, he had released from the Minnesota prison system after serving a sentence on a sex offense.

The case raised a public outcry, which politicians met over the years by increasing prison terms for sex offenders. Gov. Tim Pawlenty also led a movement to commit more sex offenders to treatment after they finished their prison terms.

That effort resulted in the state Corrections Department suggesting in December 2003 that 235 imprisoned sex offenders be committed for treatment. In the entire rest of the year, just 14 offenders had been recommended, and since a commitment law began in 1995, the most recommended for commitment in any one year was 58.

Since 2003, the number of commitment referrals has varied from 88 to 170 a year.

The number of commitments has raised the number of sex offenders undergoing state treatment from 181 in 2002 to nearly 700 today.

One man was released from treatment, but quickly returned. One other man was let out and Robin Benson of the Human Services Department said that he is doing well.

It is that lack of graduates that apparently bothers federal Judge Donovan Frank, who has strongly signaled that the state needs to take action soon. In other federal cases, judges have taken over state programs that they determined were unconstitutional.

“Treatment is the linchpin,” Magnuson said.

Without treatment and the ability for sex offenders to be let out of the state program, which is behind razor wire fences, state officials’ fear is that Frank will take over the treatment program after finding that civil commitment is the same as a life sentence.

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, said that dealing with the 700 sex offenders now in treatment is only one part of the issue legislators face.

Also on next year’s agenda, she said, should be how to handle sex offenders now in prison. Many of the most serious ones normally would be committed to the treatment program, but that might not be possible if Frank gets involved.

The third issue lawmakers must tackle, but Sheran said there probably will not be time to do it next year, is how to deal with future offenders. Among thoughts on that is to provide more treatment while sex offenders are in prison, reducing or eliminating the need for them to be committed after their prison terms end.

Sheran and the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault said lawmakers also need to look into ways to prevent sex abuse and to intervene earlier when it does occur. They said that would save victims and money.

Chairman Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, urged his colleagues to encourage House members to join senators in passing a bill giving sex offenders a chance to graduate from treatment. The Senate earlier this year approved such a measure, but the House did not take it up.

“We don’t have the luxury of time,” Latz said.

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Officials say patients in the Minnesota Sex Offender Treatment Program in Moose Lake are about evenly divided between those who came from the Twin Cities and those from the rest of the state.

All but eight of Minnesota’s 87 counties have sex offenders in the program. Those eight counties are Houston, Renville, Lac qui Parle, Big Stone, Stevens, Grant, Red Lake and Cook.

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