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May 10, 2013

Sex offender bill draws GOP opposition

ST. PAUL — A bill to begin reforms to the state’s sex offender program was passed by a House committee Friday evening on a party-line vote after about three hours of discussion.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tina Liebling, D-Rochester, was concerned about the on-the-record vote, which Republicans may use as political ammunition.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, had asked for a roll call, which would require each vote to be recorded, which isn’t the case for a voice vote.

“The only reason to do that is to use that vote against members of this committee,” Liebling said.

The bill authorizes the creation of alternatives to the the high-security, prison-like hospitals in St. Peter and Moose Lake. With a judge’s approval, some sex offenders could be transferred into smaller facilities spread across the state. Every other year, patients’ treatment progress would be reviewed to determine if they are in the right setting.

Liebling’s bill doesn’t change how people are civilly committed or how they are freed from that commitment. Those two processes are at the core of a federal lawsuit that is behind these recent reform efforts. A judge in that case appointed a panel in 2012 to examine the issue, and that body’s first round of recommendations is the basis of Liebling’s bill.

Though the bill is only taking these modest first steps, she said lawmakers who vote for it could be “spun as being soft on crime and soft on sex offenders.”

They’re worried that constituents will complain about sex offenders being housed near them, even in a secure setting. And a sex offender who gets released and re-offends could be wielded as a potent political weapon against anyone who voted for a reform bill.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, said before the 5-3 vote that he doesn’t think the bill will make it to the House floor. He said the bill would get either one or no Republican votes, and predicted some Democrats would peel off.

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