By Dan Linehan
Free Press Staff Writer
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.
“Why would they stick their neck out?” he said.
Liebling agreed that her bill might not make it to the floor: “It cannot move forward without bipartisan support.”
But it did, at least on Friday. The committee voted at about 8:30 p.m.
Donna Dunn, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, testified in support of the bill.
She said the bill doesn’t answer all of her questions about what would happen to sex offenders, but called it “a moderate step to have a deeper and longer conversation.”
Cornish has a competing proposal that would give 60-year prison sentences to people in a new class he’s calling “predatory sex offenders,” a designation to punish the most heinous sex crimes. But he didn’t introduce it this year because it doesn’t have “a snowball’s chance in Hades” of being passed, he said.
Cornish’s idea wouldn’t affect the people already in treatment but it would make civil commitment unnecessary for new offenders, considering how old the person would be at the time of release.
Republicans suggested waiting until next year and coming back with what they believe will be a better bill.
“I don’t know what the big hurry is. We can do this next year after the process has been thoughtful and we’ll have more important data to use,” said Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover.
Liebling objected to the characterization of the bill as being written without Republican input. She said they’ve known about the bill for a month but no Republicans have approached her with a concern.
“I don’t know what that would mean, if I’m supposed to go and talk to every member of the minority?” she said.
If the bill doesn’t pass the House this year, a federal court could make sweeping changes to the program. It’s even possible that the sex offenders could be all released at once.
Eric Magnuson, former chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, testified that the courts are ready to declare the program unconstitutional (because only one person has ever been released) but can’t say what the courts will do if the Legislature does nothing this year.
But he said “courts don’t sit on lawsuits waiting for states or parties in their own good time to resolve the issues ... if the Legislature doesn’t do it, the federal court will.”
In addition to the every-other-year reviews of inmates conducted by the Department of Human Services, the bill also calls for the use of smaller facilities spread across the state. As it stands, a judge deciding a civil commitment case has two options: Send the person to a prison-like facility in Moose Lake or St. Peter, from which they may never leave, or set them free.
It’s hard to say what these new treatment setting will look like because the department is still in the early stages of soliciting proposals, from both governments and private companies, to house sex offenders.
Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said the proposals so far run the gamut: “Everything from a halfway house model to things that are more secure.”
Magnuson said having more options also helps the treatment process because it allows patients’ responsibilities to be gradually increased.
“You need a transition, a flow. This gives the court a chance to put people in a better location,” he said.
Republicans said the fiscal costs of the bill haven’t been properly vetted, in part because the bill didn’t stop in the House finance committee.
“Do you know how many of these new facilities we’re going to need?” asked Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge.
Jesson said she didn’t know, and declined to guess, because it will depend on where judges decide to send civilly committed people once more options are available.
Jesson said the department could pay for new treatment models with the money budgeted for the 55 or so sex offenders slated to come into the program every year. They cost the state $326 a day per person, and any new model is almost sure to cost less.
That explanation seemed to satisfy Senate Republicans in that body’s finance subcommittee on April 30, but wasn’t good enough for the House Republicans.
The bill’s Senate companion, sponsored by Mankato Rep. Kathy Sheran, is ready for a final vote and has moved through committees with little or no objection. Why has its Senate path been so smooth compared to the House?
Liebling blamed (or credited, depending on your perspective) a few representatives for the opposition, as well as a different culture than the state Senate.
The bill’s next stop in the House is the rules committee.