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Lawmakers begin work on sex offenders legislation
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Barry Woodgate, a forensic and clinical examiner demonstrates the polygraph test. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
A Minnesota Senate committee on Wednesday began discussions toward legislation to crack down on sex offenders. Lawmakers are considering requiring polygraph exams, tracking devices and lifetime supervision for certain sex offenders. The measures could be part of a comprehensive Senate bill that will create longer prison sentences for sexual predators. House lawmakers are also working on sex offender legislation, but the two bills may have some significant differences.

St. Paul, Minn. — Lawmakers in both the House and Senate say they want to pass tougher penalties for sex offenders by the end of March. At this point, only the Senate has some specific bills on the table. The Senate Crime Prevention Committee looked at several proposals that would impose new requirements on sex offenders. The first would require sex offenders to undergo polygraph exams as a condition of probation. Supporters say a polygraph can lead an offender to reveal other victims.

Ninth Judicial District Judge Donald Aandahl is a former public defender who represented as many as 300 accused sex offenders. He says the Ninth Judicial District, which covers northwestern Minnesota, has been using polygraphs, and has discovered anywhere from 10 to 100 additional victims for each sex offender.

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"Through the polygraph, we're getting the satisfaction that people that are being convicted of these crimes actually did these crimes. And in some cases, what their admissions are are much worse than what was reported to us, or what we initially identified,"

Officials with the Upper Mississippi Mental Health Center say they're using the polygraph as a treatment tool for sex offenders. They say the polygraph persuades offenders to honestly discuss their pasts.

The Crime Prevention Committee didn't vote on the polygraph bill, but committee chairman Leo Foley, a DFLer from Coon Rapids, says he may include it in the sex offender legislation he's putting together. Foley's bill would create open-ended sentences with the possibility of life in prison for repeat sex offenders.

Foley says his bill may also include Republican Sen. Tom Neuville's proposal for lifetime supervision for certain repeat sex offenders. Neuville says his proposal could be an alternative for civil commitment, which costs about $300 a day. Neuville says Minnesotans wonder why Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., a Level 3 sex offender, was released into the community. Rodriguez was arrested in the disappearance of missing college student Dru Sjodin.

"And I'll bet we wish right now that we would have had lifetime conditional release on a whole lot of fellows that are out walking around right now," Neuville said.

Some lawmakers questioned the cost of lifetime supervised release. DFL Sen. Jane Ranum said she's not opposed to Neuville's proposal, as long as the Legislature is willing to find the money to pay for it.

Senators also discussed requiring sex offenders to wear ankle bracelets that could track their movements using Global Positioning Systems. Gov. Pawlenty has proposed using the monitoring system for certain high-risk offenders.

Sen. Foley says his sex offender bill will likely include some of the measures his committee looked at.

"I think that with the tools that we looked at today, plus the sentencing, that we can do better with less." he said.

Foley says the Senate is moving quickly on sex offender legislation, and his bill could reach the floor in the next few weeks. He says the House should do the same, or the complex issue could hold up the session.

The House bill will be sponsored by Kurt Zellers, a freshman Republican from Maple Grove. Zellers says his bill will be introduced in the next week or two. He says it will create life sentences without the possibility of parole for the most dangerous sex offenders. Zellers says it's taken awhile to put the bill together, because any change in sentencing guidelines could affect sentences for other crimes. He says lawmakers need to be very deliberate about the legislation.

"It's something that a lot of my constituents are very interested in, I get a lot of calls, a lot of letters about this, make sure and do it right, don't rush through it, do it right."

Zellers says he's confident that the House and Senate can resolve differences between the two bills. He says both bodies want to get something done this year.

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