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Pawlenty outlines proposal for dealing with sex offenders
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Gov. Pawlenty says GPS can be used to monitor sex offenders. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
Gov. Pawlenty is proposing to keep the state's most dangerous sex offenders in jail for life without a chance for parole. In a crime package released on Thursday, the governor also calls for tougher sentences for sex crimes in general, increased monitoring for sex offenders who have been released from jail and more money to add prison space. Pawlenty is also asking the state Legislature to require the attorney general's office to work with county attorneys and the Corrections Department to seek civil commitments of any level three offenders who are scheduled for release. The governor says his proposal will strengthen the state's laws against sex offenders but others argue it doesn't get to the immediate problem.

St. Paul, Minn. — Pawlenty's proposal comes two months after the disappearance of 22-year-old North Dakota college student Dru Sjodin. Sjodin has not been found, but convicted rapist Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., has been charged with kidnapping her.

Corrections officials decided against recommending civil commitment for Rodriguez but later assessed that Rodriguez was becoming more violent. Pawlenty has been talking about tougher penalties, including the death penalty, for sex offenders since the arrest of Rodriguez. The death penalty is not part of his crime package, but Pawlenty says he still plans to pursue it in the upcoming session.

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Image Corrections commissioner Joan Fabian

In addition to longer sentences, the package adds another step for screening highly dangerous sex offenders who are scheduled for release. It would require the attorney general's office to work with county attorneys and the Corrections Department to consider indefinite civil commitment for those offenders. The governor says the attorney general's office would have the option of pursuing civil commitment if a county attorney decides against it.

"We think it's important at least initially in this review process to have uniformity, to have expertise, to have individuals who repeatedly handling these cases taking a look at them at least from a legal standpoint. That's why we think this idea of an upfront review with attorney general's office is an important part of the process," Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty says he'd like the state to borrow $109 million to add 875 beds to the state's prison system. He would also like to borrow $3 million to plan for more space at a security hospital in St. Peter.

Pawlenty is also asking for more money to track and monitor offenders who have been released.

Corrections Commissioner Joan Fabian says they'd like to add 18 parole officers and require some offenders to wear ankle bracelets that would allow the state to track those offenders at all times.

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Image Attorney General Mike Hatch

"We will be able to do certain things to have zones... to restrict them. A pedophile could not go around a school. We could program all of those strategies in supervising," she said.

Pawlenty couldn't give the total cost of the entire program, but several commissioners say it could run as much as $10 million a year in operating costs.

One big increase could come in the Sex Offender Treatment Program. Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno says the proposal could mean a fifty percent increase in civil commitments a year. Treatment costs 110 thousand dollars a year per patient. The governor says he'll likely cut funding for other programs to pay for his plan but wouldn't say where the cuts would occur.

House and Senate DFLers also announced a package similar to Pawlenty's. One difference is that DFLers would prefer "indeterminate sentencing." That means dangerous offenders could be kept in prison for life, but have the option of parole.

A group that represents victims of sexual assault says it's happy that the proposals call for tougher sentences for sex crimes. But Carla Ferrucci, with the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, says she would like to see more money for sexual violence prevention, treatment, and education programs.

"Crisis intervention is very important, but we'd like to stop the violence before it starts so those community intervention measures are really vital and are a piece of the public safety picture," according to Ferrucci.

Attorney General Mike Hatch says he doesn't think the proposals get at the immediate problem. He says several highly dangerous sex offenders have been released in recent months when they should have been civilly committed.

Without specifically pointing fingers at Pawlenty or former Gov. Ventura, Hatch believes a budget crunch in state government put pressure on corrections officials to decide against recommending civil commitment.

"Do you think there's been pressure on this group that said 'Don't refer them in too?' I think so. Why did the referrals drop? And I don't care what administration is involved here. I'm talking about a specific public safety crisis facing this state. It's not a political issue. It's a public safety issue," Hatch said.

Pawlenty and Corrections Commissioner Joan Fabian say they're still looking into whether they can take disciplinary action against the psychologist who reviewed Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.

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