The Free Press, Mankato, MN

May 8, 2013

Sex offender reform heads to Senate floor

By Dan Linehan
Free Press Staff Writer

— State Sen. Kathy Sheran's first-steps bill to reform the Minnesota Sex Offender Program seamlessly cleared its final committee hurdle and is set for a floor vote.

But its House companion faces a test Thursday from Republicans, said Sheran, DFL-Mankato.

Wednesday's unanimous vote from the Senate finance committee came after about 90 minutes of conversation, mostly about the nature of the sex offender program and not this specific bill, Sheran said.

The finance committee's business is to make certain the bill's costs have been analyzed and accounted for in the budget, she said, though this work had been largely completed in a finance subcommittee.

Though the reforms call for new proposals to treat sex offenders, these costs are being compared against the $326-a-day costs to house and treat a sex offender. In other words, almost anything is cheaper than what's being done now.

Other parts of the bill, including an every-other-year review for each inmate, haven't been done before and will cost new money.

Though Wednesday's stop was about budget planning, the bill is motivated by a federal judge's task force to help solve constitutional problems of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. That problem is, chiefly, that there are almost 700 people in the program and only one release.

Sheran's bill, modeled on the first set of recommendations from the task force, would create so-called "less-restrictive alternatives" to the facilities in St. Peter and Moose Lake. The idea is that not everyone who gets committed as a sex offender needs to be in a secure, prison-like facility behind razor wire.

Forthcoming recommendations, due later this year, will presumably spawn bills of their own next session.

The bill also would call for reviews for each inmate every two years to determine where they need to be, estimated to cost $1.4 million a year. After all, treatment, not punishment, is the goal of this program, which is locking people up not for crimes they've committed but for crimes they might commit.

The bill could come to the Senate floor next week.

"This is the right thing to do. We've needed to do it a long time," Sheran said.

The bill's House companion comes before the judiciary committee Friday morning.

Though there's been bipartisan support in the Senate, Sheran said there are House Republicans who may object to what they may see as a loosening of controls on sex offenders. If someone who leaves the Minnesota Sex Offender Program eventually reoffends, a lawmaker may tout their vote against these reforms.