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Corrections officials on the hot seat over sex offender program
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Corrections Commissioner Joan Fabian, center, faced a barrage of criticism at a Senate hearing over her department's handling of sex offenders. Department officials Bill Donnay, left, and Dennis Benson also spoke to the committee. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
The state's corrections commissioner faced a barrage of questions over the state's program for dealing with sex offenders at a Senate hearing Monday. The program has come under scrutiny after a level 3 sex offender living in northeastern Minnesota was arrested in the case of a missing college student. Senate DFLers grilled Corrections Commissioner Joan Fabian about the process for seeking civil commitments of sex offenders, but they say they aren't satisfied with her answers.

St. Paul, Minn. — Until last month, here's how the state's civil commitment process worked. Corrections officials would decide which sex offenders they believed were at the highest risk of reoffending, and send those cases to county attorneys with a recommendation that the offenders be civilly committed.

Under the state's 1994 civil commitment law, a judge can indefinitely commit a sexual psychopath to a secure psychiatric facility for treatment. But after Alfonso Rodriguez, Jr., was arrested in the disappearance of Dru Sjodin, the Department of Corrections began referring all level 3 sex offenders to county attorneys for review.

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Image Sen. Linda Berglin

At a Senate Crime Prevention committee hearing, Sen. Wes Skoglund, DFL-Minneapolis, said Corrections is passing the buck to county attorneys.

"They're getting a file, then they're having to make the decision. And obviously, the buck does stop there," says Skoglund. "But it sure would help if somebody along the line, the people who know these inmates best, would say, yes, you should really pursue this one; this one's not as dangerous."

Skoglund says Corrections Commissioner Joan Fabian isn't following the law by simply sending all level 3's to county attorneys. Fabian says after the Rodriguez case, she wanted to make sure that Corrections hadn't missed someone who should have been civilly committed.

"I saw our responsibility as sending it to the county attorney for them to consider," says Fabian. "It's a recommendation, it isn't us making the decision."

Fabian says her office has offered to work with county attorneys and sign off on cases with them. But some county attorneys say they've been overwhelmed by the number of level 3 cases coming from Fabian's department for possible civil commitment.

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Image County attorneys

The Hennepin County attorney's office received more than 100 cases last month, and Ramsey County attorney Susan Gaertner says she has 50 new cases. She's asking the Ramsey County Board for an emergency appropriation of $225,000 to handle the caseload.

"We're glad to do it. We welcome the opportunity to scrutinize all 50 of the level 3 offenders that are residing in the Ramsey County community, and we'll approach those with care and with vigor," Gaertner says. "But I am hopeful, as I say, that the Ramsey County board will give us the resources that we need to do that job."

Gaertner says the flood of new cases is in stark contrast to the last few years, when her office saw a dramatic reduction in civil commitment referrals from corrections.

Some DFLers, including Attorney General Mike Hatch, have questioned whether the reduction was due to budget concerns. Hatch says state officials realized that the state's two secure psychiatric hospitals in Moose Lake and St. Peter were filling up, and considered releasing some offenders into the community.

Fabian told the committee that there were discussions among state officials about the two facilities reaching capacity. Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, seemed surprised.

"I sat in on hearings where there was discussion about the future of the predatory sex offender program, and there never was any discussion at those hearings that those facilities were full. I just learned that today myself. So what was the nature of the discussion?" she asked.

"Basically, the discussions that I have been involved in at all were increasing the capacity," Fabian responded.

Gov. Pawlenty is proposing that the state borrow $3 million to expand the psychiatric hospital in St. Peter. Berglin and other DFLers also wanted to know how many other level 3 sex offenders like Alfonso Rodriguez, Jr., were released from prison in recent years without being referred for civil commitment. Corrections officials say they don't know, but they'll try to figure that out.

After the hearing, Fabian seemed a bit dazed by the interrogation session. The former Ramsey County official says she's probably naive about the political process, but says she thinks she and the Senate DFLers share a common goal of protecting public safety.

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