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Committee passes bill that would send some sex offenders to prison for life
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Authors of the sex offender law include (left to right)Reps. Doug Meslow, Kurt Zellers, Steve Strachan (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
The Minnesota House Judiciary Committee has approved a bill to lock up violent sex offenders for life. Only one person showed up to testify at a hearing on the measure Wednesday night, a man who opposes the bill. Some lawmakers on the committee also object to the tougher sentence, saying it goes too far.

St. Paul, Minn. — The bill would sentence the most violent sex offenders to life in prison without the possibility of parole. That penalty is currently reserved only for some first-degree murderers. One of the bill's sponsors, Republican Steve Strachan of Farmington, says the sentence is appropriate. Strachan, a police officer, says violent sex offenders are highly likely to commit more sex crimes.

"This is not an overreaction. This is simply recognizing, I think, that sexual offenders are as dangerous as murderers. Murderers tend not to recommit that crime," he said.

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No one showed up to testify in support of the bill. The bill's sponsors said they thought it would be inappropriate to ask victims' families to testify. When a similar bill was heard in a Senate committee this week, friends and family of missing college student Dru Sjodin urged legislators to pass tougher penalties.

A Level 3 sex offender has been arrested in Sjodin's disappearance. The one citizen who came to the House hearing, Jim White of St. Paul, asked lawmakers to wait a year before passing longer sentences.

"Kind of let the dust settle a little bit. When we make legislation in the, what I might call, knee-jerk or in the fit of emotions, things can happen. People can get hurt," he said.

White says he's been visiting a convicted sex offender in prison for the last few years. He says this particular offender says he will never commit another sex crime, and White believes offenders should have the opportunity to rehabilitate. He says that opportunity is taken away if there's no chance of parole.

One of the bill's sponsors, Republican Doug Meslow, is a prosecutor in White Bear Lake. He says the life-without-parole sentence would apply to offenders who use a weapon, have an accomplice or assault a victim under the age of 16.

"So we are truly talking about the worst of the worst here, and I would urge the committee as we look at this, as much as we want to think about redemption, our top priority is the safety of society out there," according to Meslow.

Under the bill, all other felony sex crimes would be subject to open-ended sentences with the possibility of life in prison. A new review panel would decide if and when offenders would be released.

Rep. Keith Ellison, DFL-Minneapolis, says the bill could make even consensual sex with minors -- statutory rape -- punishable by life in prison. Ellison, an attorney, also has concerns about the review panel. He says a more subjective process could result in racial bias when determining how long someone stays in prison.

"We have sentencing guidelines for a reason. Why? Because different people were being treated not the same. So we came up with sentencing guidelines so people would be treated equally," Ellison said.

Ellison says the bill doesn't apply to sex offenders who've already been sentenced, and will be getting out of prison in the coming years. Ellison was one of the few committee members who voted against the bill, when it cleared the judiciary committee on a divided voice vote.

"I mean, all of us who voted against it are running a political risk, because, you know, this is one of those issues that goes for the emotional jugular vein."

The bill must go through several more committees before it reaches the House floor. The bill's main sponsor, Rep. Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, says he expects more questions on the cost of the bill.

Fiscal analysts estimate nearly $8 million in increased court costs next year because of more trials and appeals. The cost would increase to 17-million dollars the following year. Zellers disputes the number, because he says he doesn't think fiscal analysts took into account future savings from locking up offenders who would commit more crimes.

"I think they've actually high-balled it a lot. You know, I think they've actually loaded it up maybe significantly more. Again, these are crimes that are being committed over and over again," Zellers said.

Zellers says prison is also much cheaper than civilly committing sex offenders to secure psychiatric hospitals.

As Zellers' bill moves through the House, the chair of the Senate Crime Prevention Committee is putting together a sweeping sex offender bill. DFLer Leo Foley says his bill will include open-ended sentences with a maximum of life in prison, but will not include life without the possibility of parole. At the Capitol, I'm LM, MPR.

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