The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 20, 2013

Inaction on sex offenders risks public safety

Why it matters: Without Legislative action, it is possible 700 sex offenders could be released in Minnesota

The Mankato Free Press

---- — The case for Minnesota Legislators to reform the sex offender commitment procedure was made stronger Monday when former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Eric Magnuson suggested to legislators they risk all sex offenders being released if they don’t act.

We hope that was a wake-up call not only for those Legislators who seek to politicize the issue in the next election, but also those who want to hold on to untenable solutions like increasing prison sentences which won’t affect any of the 700 offenders now in the system.

Magnuson, who is on the federal task force charged with recommending changes to the law, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that a federal judge could very well rule Minnesota’s commitment law unconstitutional and require release of some 700 sex offenders in state institutions.

There appears to be a small window of opportunity to change the law. Magnuson suggested if the Legislature doesn’t get it done this next session, which is short, the federal courts are likely to act. They have a history of having little patience with dawdling and politically hogtied legislators.

In California, Magnuson pointed out, the U.S. Supreme Court required the release of some 30,000 inmates because it determined overcrowded California prisons amounted to “cruel and unusual” punishment.

The case pending before the federal courts in Minnesota brought by more than a dozen offenders is a class action that argues the treatment at the sex offender facilities is inadequate and inhumane. Their case is bolstered by the fact that for two decades some 700 offenders have been civilly committed and only one has been released.

Federal Judge Donovan Frank will have a hearing Dec. 18 on the class action case. Last year he ordered Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson to form the task force to come up with less restrictive conditions for holding and releasing sex offenders. That panel made recommendations last year and Jesson adopted some of them in small ways. That panel, headed by Magnuson, will make final recommendations to the Legislature Dec. 1.

The Legislature and the governor need to take seriously these recommendations and move on them with urgency. Gov. Mark Dayton’s recent decision to halt all sex offender hearings for release only increases the pressure for the Legislature to do something.

The threat of release of sex offenders in a completely unsupervised way seems very real.

The bipartisan bill passed the Senate with Republican support, including Senate Minority Leader Dave Hann. The House bill was co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Jim Abeler, of Anoka, but no other Republicans supported it. Democrats in the House indicated they would not move forward alone on the bill for concern that the GOP would use such votes as campaign literature.

The latest warning by Magnuson should convince those GOP legislators who oppose changes that something needs to get done and get done quickly. While Dayton’s recent move to halt offender approvals was driven by the politics of the situation, we hope he realizes at some point he may need to lead on this issue regardless of the political consequences.

Republicans in the House were quoted in stories last May that there may be no need to v this issue and there is no urgency.

GOP leaders and others should listen to their brethren GOP-appointed Magnuson. He told legislators Monday that the constitutional challenge to the law if very real and a judge finding against Minnesota would act “with a broad sword not a scalpel.” He told legislators if the federal courts find for the offenders, the Legislature likely would have no control over the method of treating sex offenders nor the cost.

Reading between the lines, that means release of all sex offenders, again, unsupervised, unmonitored.

So legislators who want to play out the politics should consider one thing: How good will their election chances be when they were responsible for allowing all sex offenders to be released.