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House Republicans propose tougher sentences for sex offenders
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Alfonso Rodriguez, Jr. is suspected of kidnapping Dru Sjodin. He has a history of sexual contact and attempted kidnapping with adult women, and has used a weapon in at least one assault. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Corrections)
The Minnesota House Republican caucus is proposing legislation that would create tougher sentences for violent sex offenders. The announcement comes two weeks after a convicted sex offender was charged with kidnapping 22-year-old college student Dru Sjodin. Alfonso Rodriguez, Jr. is in custody for allegedly kidnapping Sjodin. He was released from prison in May after serving 23 years for assault, kidnapping and other convictions of attempted rape and aggravated rape. House Republicans say the incident highlights the need for tougher sentences.

St. Paul, Minn. — House Speaker Steve Sviggum says he doesn't believe the Legislature would pass Gov. Pawlenty's proposal to use the death penalty for violent sex offenders. Members of Sviggum's caucus, however, say they want to see all violent sex offenders locked up for life. Currently, severe murder cases are the only crimes that have the possibility of life without parole.

Rep. Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, says he attended the University of North Dakota and worked at the same mall where Dru Sjodin disappeared. He believes it's time to propose life sentences for sex offenders, instead of using civil commitment to keep them confined indefinitely in treatment programs.

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Image Rep. Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove

"The crux of the Republican House plan is to move away from the civil commitment, and turn the predators into the criminal justice system for a solution in the current system," says Zellers.

The plan wouldn't have an immediate impact, because sex offenders currently in prison wouldn't fall under the new proposed guidelines. Prosecutors would still need to use civil commitment to keep the most dangerous offenders in the existing population from re-entering society.

Rep. Steve Smith, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, says he doesn't know how many more prison beds the life-without-parole plan would require, so he can't put a price tag on the proposal. Smith says his caucus will find a way to fully fund the proposal.

"The focus of this bill is on the hard-core, dangerous sexual predator to do a couple things ... to get the hard ones in prison where they belong, focusing on punishment and keeping them away from society," says Smith.

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Image DFL is receptive

Smith says House Republicans need to work with the Corrections Department, county prosecutors and others to work out some of the finer points of the plan. For example, they have to review all sentencing guidelines to ensure that sex crimes don't have tougher sentencing standards than second-degree murder.

Smith says he'll start holding hearings on the proposal in January.

DFL leaders in both the House and Senate say they're receptive to the idea, but want to look at all of the details. DFL Senate Majority Leader John Hottinger says his caucus will hold hearings on sex offenders to decide how to best address the issue.

"That's why we need to take testimony on both this proposal and other approaches, because we have to find not only the best way -- but the best economical way to take care of these problems," says Hottinger.

Any new sentencing standards will only add to an already ballooning inmate population. A Department of Corrections report says the state's prison population is expected to reach 10,000 by 2011, up from about 7,500 inmates now. Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, says lawmakers need to balance the demand for tougher sentences with a limited budget.

"Whether we commit people to life sentences or not is yet to be decided. We also have a budget deficit, and everyone we commit to prison for life is going to increase the costs. So we have to look at the cost benefit," Berglin says.

Berglin says she thinks lawmakers should spend more money on treatment for adults and juveniles who commit minor sex crimes. She says treatment is effective and ensures that those individuals don't commit more violent sex crimes in the future.

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