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Senate bill treads lighter on sex offenders than House
The Minnesota Senate has overwhelmingly passed a bill that would toughen penalties for sex offenders, murderers and methamphetimine makers. The penalties are part of a wide-ranging public safety bill that would fund state courts and prisons for the next two years. The bill must be reconciled with a House version that goes even further in penalizing sex offenders.

St. Paul, Minn. — The Senate bill calls for open-ended sentences with the possibility of life in prison for the most dangerous sex offenders. That puts the DFL-controlled Senate at odds with the Republican-led House and Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who support life in prison without the possibility of parole for the most violent offenders.

The sponsor of the Senate version, Minneapolis DFLer Jane Ranum, says the Senate approach gives prosecutors the tools they need to lock up the worst of the worst.

"The people who try these cases on a daily basis, the prosecutors tell us, 'give us flexibility, give us indeterminate life, but let us then figure out - because because no sex offender is identical to another sex offender,'" Ransum says.

The Senate voted 64-to-1 for the bill. The lone "no" vote, Republican Brian LeClair of Woodbury, says the bill doesn't go far enough to protect the public from sexual predators. He says the most violent offenders should never be given the opportunity to hurt a second victim.

Sen. Dave Kleis, R-St. Cloud, voted for the bill to move it along, but says indeterminate sentences aren't tough enough.

"Every time there's flexibility, there's an incident when somebody's let out and they commit a heinous crime, we come back here and try to make another fix. We've got to finally fix this system and the only way we're going to do that is life without release," according to Kleis.

The bill does not include two new sanctions for sex offenders that were added to the House public safety bill. That bill would make castration a possible penalty for pedophiles, and require special license plates that identify sexual predators.

Kleis says those provisions aren't necessary if sex offenders are sentenced to life in prison.

"I don't think we need to do anything if we lock them up without the possibility of release because we know where they're going to be; they will be in prison. I don't oppose that. If that's part of the final analysis, that's fine," he said.

Kleis proposed an amendment to the bill that would increase the penalty for premeditated first-degree murder to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Kleis's amendment passed by a vote of 43-to-22.

The bill would also increase penalties for manufacturing methamphetamine. It would create new crimes for stealing anhydrous ammonia used to make meth, and for meth-related activities that affect children.

Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, says the provisions would deal with the meth crisis in Minnesota.

"It will be the most aggressive, comprehensive piece of methamphetamine legislation in the nation," she said.

The House has passed a meth bill that goes even further than the Senate, and would ban the sale of cold products used to make the drug without a prescription. That bill will also need to be reconciled with the Senate version.

The Senate public safety bill would spend about $1.7 billion to fund the state's courts, prisons and crime labs. It would spend more money than the House on community supervision of sex offenders, crime victim services and battered women's shelters.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson of Willmar says it's the best public safety bill he's seen in his more than two decades in the Legislature.

"When I look at the resources provided to police officers, law enforcement, but also the issue that many of you worked on in methamphetamine, sexual predators, the matters of crime victims and battered women and the list goes on and on and on. This is a good investment," he said.

The bill would increase traffic fines by $12, and add a $1 surcharge to each driver's license issued which would pay for prosecuting identity theft. It would raise the monthly charge on every phone connection by a quarter to pay for 911 service.