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The cost of throwing away the key
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The tougher crime bill grew out of the kidnapping and murder of Dru Sjodin in 2003. The suspect in that case, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., is a convicted sex offender who was released from prison months before Sjodin disappeared. (MPR file photo)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty's office says the governor will likely sign increased sex offender penalties into law next week. On Monday, the Legislature passed a crime bill that would send the most violent sex offenders to prison for life with no chance for parole. Some in the legal system are trying to figure out what kind of impact the law will have on the courts, prisons and streets of Minnesota.

St. Paul, Minn. — The new statutory guidelines ramp up the penalties for what the state considers the worst of the worst sex offenders. They are sex offenders who use force or violence, coupled with at least two other heinous crimes such as kidnapping or mutilating their victims.

In the past, such offenders could get a minimum 12 and a half years in prison. But under the new guidelines, they will never leave prison.

The executive director of the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, Barbara Tombs, says the Legislature narrowly tailored the penalties for those offenders who not only have prior criminal convictions, but prior convictions of sex crimes.

"This proposal weighted more heavily prior sex convictions, which are very important when you're looking at predatory offenders," says Tombs. "They truly do get at the most heinous types of sex offenses."

We just have to be careful in making the assumption that radical increases in penalties is going to make our state safer.
- Hennepin County Public Defender James Kamin

Tombs says the new guidelines will affect about 33 sex offenders per year. She says, however, it's too soon to know how many extra prison beds will be needed as a result.

At any rate, the state won't need extra beds for these specific offenders for about 12 years. That's the time that under the old system, the state would have begun releasing some of these offenders, opening up their prison space to new prisoners. Now, those beds won't open up until the offender dies.

The U.S. Bureau of Justice says Minnesota already has the fastest growing prison population in the country. On the other hand, Minnesota, along with Maine, has the lowest per capita prison population in the country.

The law will likely have some immediate costs. Hennepin County Chief Judge Lucy Wieland says she expects the new guidelines will increase the number of full-length jury trials. The penalties are such that offenders have nothing to lose by going to trial.

"This has the potential for us to have to try more jury trials, and serious jury trials and long jury trials," says Wieland. "These would be akin to us trying first degree murder trials in terms of jury selection, so you'd be looking at a minimum, probably, of a two to three-week trial."

In addition to mandatory life without parole for the most serious sex offenses, the bill also allows open-ended sentences where a sex offender stays in prison until the Department of Corrections allows them to leave.

To avoid having sex offenders face harsher penalties than murderers, the bill increases the penalty for first-degree premeditated murder to life without parole. Right now, the most serious penalty is reserved for killing a police officer or prison guard, killing somone during a forcible sexual assault, kidnapping or terrorist act.

The Legislature passed the bill 18 months after the death of North Dakota college student Dru Sjodin. Sjodin disappeared from a Grand Forks mall parking lot and searchers found her body five months later.

Authorities charged Alfonso Rodriguez, Jr., a convicted rapist who had just left prison after serving 23 years. The outrage over that crime has been a major factor behind the push for tougher sex offense sentences.

Hennepin County Public Defender Jim Kamin says the state needs to be cautious about its expectations over the longer sentences.

"We just have to be careful in making the assumption that radical increases in penalties is going to make our state safer," says Kamin. "This set of statutes ... may be based on one or two highly publicized incidents, and not based on a careful strategic approach to a problem."

Anoka County Attorney Bob Johnson says the new provisions will give prosecutors more tools, and may make society a bit safer. He says, however, that increasing sentences isn't the complete answer.

Johnson, former head of the National District Attorneys' Association, says Congress and other states are finding that increasing prison sentences isn't enough. What's truly important in reducing crime is helping those prisoners who are released re-enter free society.

"We have to work to integrate them back into society. Because if we don't do that, we're just perpetuating that cycle of offense, prison, offense, prison," says Johnson. "And we can't afford to do that as a society, either fiscally or, more importantly, for our own personal safety."

If the governor signs the bill, the new penalties will take effect Aug. 1, 2005.