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January 18, 2005
North Dakota lawmakers will likely toughen the laws against violent sex offenders this year. Lawmakers rejected the idea of reinstating the death penalty, but tougher penalties for violent sex offenders are expected to pass. The actions come as result of one death that got attention from around the country.
Moorhead, Minn. — Her name was Dru Sjodin. The 22-year-old college student was abducted more than a year ago, sexually assaulted and killed. Her body was found last spring, and Alfonso Rodriguez, a convicted sex offender, has been charged in the case.
In North Dakota, the Sjodin case was a wake-up call. Members of a governor's task force developed recommendations they hope will reduce the chances for a repeat of the Sjodin case.
Duane Houdek, legal counsel for Gov. John Hoeven, chairs the task force and says the legislative proposals focus on three areas -- hiring specialists to work with police on sex offender cases; monitoring offenders more closely, establishing tougher sentencing guidelines for violent offenders.
"For selected crimes, (we would) have absolute life in prison with no possibility of parole," says Houdek. "That will provide the public safety, and assurance to the public, that we want."
Not all sex offenders would be put away for life, but they would be closely watched. Lt. Tod Dahle, chief investigator for the Fargo police, says one task force recommendation would require a five-year probation period for every sex offender. Right now, when a sex offender is released, all they have to do is register with local police.
"But there's no one monitoring how they are doing. Are they having trouble with substance abuse? Are they associating with the wrong people? Are they living in an appropriate place? Is there treatment that they should have received that maybe they need on an outpatient basis?" says Dahle. "Those are all the things that probation can help monitor, much more closer than we can with registration alone."
North Dakota lawmakers will also consider spending money for electronic tracking devices. Dahle says offenders determined to be a high risk for a repeat offense will be tracked 24 hours a day.
"A person who has that (electronic monitoring) may be less likely to offend," says Dahle. "Because they know this is going to trace where they were."
Lt. Tod Dahle is hesitant to say if the changes would make North Dakota's laws the toughest in the country. But he is concerned sex offender laws are different in every state. There is no uniformity, and that's a loophole some offenders take advantage of.
For example, in North Dakota, public information about sex offenders is relatively easy to get. In Minnesota, that's not the case. Dahle says that makes it difficult for officers to get information from out-of-state police departments. Dahle says it's an issue federal lawmakers need to address.
"The time has come for a federal sex offender registry, that would help track offenders when they move state to state," says Dahle. "Because there are some offenders who are looking for a place where the attention is not so severe, that they will pick a state that they think there will be less restrictions placed on them, less public attention."
Congress has taken no action on the federal registry idea.
The changes in North Dakota's laws would not be cheap. The governor's budget includes $23 million in new spending, to pay for the changes. State Rep. Rick Berg, the Republican House majority leader, says since the state has a $100 million budget surplus lawmakers will likely approve the changes.
"As it relates to citizen safety, funding is not a question," says Berg. "That is such a priority. If we have to make reductions in other areas of the budget to enact these things, I think the Legislature will do that."
North Dakota lawmakers began their session early in January. By law, they have 90 days to complete their work.