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Corrections officials change sex offender review policy
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William Mitchell College of Law professor Eric Janus says he's troubled that the decision to refer all level three offenders for commitment may mean that more offenders could have their prison terms extended. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
Another day has passed without a sign of Dru Sjodin, the 22-year-old college student who went missing last month after her shift at a Grand Forks shopping mall. The man charged with kidnapping made his first appearance in a North Dakota courtroom Thursday afternoon. A judge set bail for Alfonso Rodriguez Junior at $5 million dollars. Rodriguez entered no plea, but requested to remain in jail, for his own safety. Rodriguez is a convicted rapist who was released by Minnesota authorities last May even though he was rated a level three sex offender -- the category deemed the highest risk to reoffend. His arrest in the Sjodin disappearance has prompted the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections order her department to refer all level three sex offenders to county attorneys for civil commitment. Until now, officials with the Corrections Department have conducted interviews and psychiatric evaluations of all level three sex offenders. The department would then recommend civil commitment for the offenders judged most likely to commit another sex crime. Critics say the policy shift is shortsighted and will place an undue burden on county attorneys and the courts.

St. Paul, Minn. — Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. was released after serving a 23- year prison sentence. Earlier this week, a corrections official said he was not recommended for civil commitment because of his age and his behavior in prison. The 50-year-old Rodriguez moved into his mother's home in Crookston, where neighbors were notified of his release.

Corrections Commissioner Joan Fabian's new policy will take that discretion away from department staffers. The decision on who should be civilly committed will now be left up to county attorneys who worry that they won't have the time or resources to do the same job.

"I just want to know is it going to make it a better process or is it just going to change who is ultimately responsible," said Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner. She says her office will continue to do a thorough review of anyone judged a a high likelihood to reoffend. Her office now considers civil commitment for any sex offenders recommended by the Corrections Department.

Gaertner says, however, that she's concerned that county attorneys across the state won't have the experts and the tools to make uniform decisions about offenders: "When they send a file to us and say we have concerns, we think this person might reoffend, we really rely on that judgment. And I'm really concerned that without that judgment, without that initial screening, the process is not going to be better, the process isn't going to be as good."

Corrections Department officials declined requests to be interviewed for this story. A spokesperson says the policy shift is temporary, but that Fabian may move to make it permanent.

Gaertner isn't sure if more people will be civilly committed under the new program. She says the courts have approved about fifty percent of her civil commitment requests. But there will be an increase in referrals. The Corrections Department expects 45 level three offenders to be released from prison every year. If committed, they would go into the Sex Offender Treatment Program.

And that worries some who say the costly program is not producing significant results. There are 209 offenders in the program now at a cost of $110,000 a year per patient.

Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, says the Pawlenty administration should think carefully before increasing the number of patients. He says lawmakers should allocate more money for treating released sex offenders in community settings rather than recommending more costly civil commitment for all level three offenders.

"I don't think by saying let's commit everybody who comes out of prison won't stand constitutional muster and I don't think we can afford it," Betzold said.

The Legislature made a five percent cut for community sex offender treatment and supervision in the current two-year budget. Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno says his department is prepared to handle an increase in patients who are civilly committed. But he says he's not so sure that there will be an increase since the courts require a high standard of proof before a person is civilly committed.

"If there's a greater number of individuals in the program, we'll provide treatment for them and we'll make sure we have a secured setting for them," Goodno said. "Just because more people are referred doesn't necessarily mean that will increase the number of people who are civilly committed because the referral is just a recommendation or a just giving the county a heads up."

William Mitchell College of Law professor Eric Janus says he's troubled that the decision to refer all level three offenders for commitment may mean that more offenders could have their prison terms extended. He says politicians will continue to use civil commitment as an option whenever a sex offender is arrested for a high profile crime.

"There will be always be some pressure to extend the line further down," Janus said. "And without some principal place to stop we should expect that the net for civil commitment will continue to grow because unfortunately there will always be some recidvism among sex offenders."

The Corrections Department says 12 level three sex offenders of the 140 released from 1997 through 1999 were arrested for a new sex offense by March of 2002.

Janus says he's not considering a lawsuit over this most recent policy shift. He and several other attorneys have filed a lawsuit over Governor Pawlenty's executive order in July that says no one in the sex offender program should be released unless by a court order. Janus says the order undermines the constitutionality of the treatment program.

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