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Senate set to take up MSOP legislation, but problems remain in House

Paul Demko//May 13, 2013

Senate set to take up MSOP legislation, but problems remain in House

Paul Demko//May 13, 2013

Rep. Tina Liebling (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Rep. Tina Liebling vowed that she would pull her bill proposing changes to Minnesota’s troubled civil commitment program for sex offenders if Republicans asked for a roll call vote. The Rochester DFLer feared that Republicans would use any recorded vote to smear DFLers as soft on sex offenders when campaign season rolls around.

So when Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, asked for a roll call vote when the bill was before the Judiciary Finance and Policy Committee on Friday morning, it looked like the proposal would get shelved.

But at some point prior to the committee reconvening on Friday evening, Liebling changed her mind. “It just needed to move forward,” Liebling said on Monday. “At a leadership level, there needs to be a decision about where the bill can go.”

The bill ultimately passed out of judiciary on a 5-3 party-line vote. But if Republicans were hoping to use the vote for political purposes, they’re not going to find much ammunition. Just five DFLers were on hand to vote for the bill, all representing solidly liberal districts. The rest of the Democrats – including swing state freshmen Reps. Ben Lien of Moorhead and Jay McNamar of Elbow Lake – were conspicuously absent.

“The members who were there were okay with taking a vote on it,” Liebling said. “It was late. A lot of the Republicans left too.”

The House bill is now before the Rules and Legislative Administration Committee. With just a week left in the legislative session, its fate remains up in the air. DFLers are unlikely to move forward unless they can extract a promise from Minority Leader Kurt Daudt that the bill will generate widespread bipartisan support.

Daudt says there have been brief discussions with DFL leaders about the issue, but he’s uncertain whether it will move forward. “I’m not sure if it’s necessary that we take action this session,” Daudt said on Monday. “We’re still kind of looking at that. They want to. I think we have to do something at some point. Of course it’s a sensitive issue.”

The legislation was drafted based on recommendations from a court-appointed task force chaired by former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson. That panel stems from a class-action lawsuit in federal court challenging the terms of confinement for nearly 700 individuals involuntarily enrolled in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).  That population includes, as first reported by PIM in October, more than 50 individuals who have never been convicted of a crime as an adult. In more than two decades, just one individual has been provisionally discharged from the MSOP.

Magnuson has repeatedly warned legislators that the federal court could take unilateral action – potentially even up to ordering the release of civilly committed sex offenders – if the state doesn’t begin taking steps to fix the problems.

“You can’t keep people locked up without effective treatment,” Magnuson said during Friday’s judiciary committee hearing. “The federal court, I believe, … is pretty inclined to declare that the system is unconstitutional from a treatment standpoint, so that needs to be fixed and that needs to be fixed now.”

The bills would create a two-part intake process for the MSOP. If an individual is initially determined to be eligible for civil commitment, it would then trigger a second hearing within 60 days. That hearing would determine the appropriate level of supervision and the type of facility in which the person should be detained. Currently, all civilly committed sex offenders are sent to prison-like facilities at Moose Lake or St. Peter.

In addition, the legislation would require that the placement status of every MSOP enrollee be reviewed at least every two years. An expert examiner appointed by the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services would be required to write a report indicating the level of each individual’s treatment progress and whether they’re being held in an appropriate facility.

The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, has advanced with bipartisan support. It’s scheduled to be taken up on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

But the House measure has encountered bumps at both its committee stops. When the bill was before the Health and Human Services Policy Committee, Rep. Tara Mack, R-Apple Valley, called for a roll call vote on the bill. But she dropped that request after Liebling threatened to pull the bill from consideration.

At Friday’s hearing before the judiciary committee, numerous Republicans expressed concern about the bill. Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, questioned whether the fiscal note adequately addressed the level of staffing that would be required to implement the changes. “Right now with the fiscal note we have, there’s no way this bill should even be in this committee,” Johnson said. “We need complete information.”

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, argued that it was a “fallacy” that a federal judge could order the release of sex offenders if problems with the MSOP aren’t addressed. “It’s really hard for me to imagine having any faith in this bill,” Cornish said. “What we’ve got here is scary.”

But Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, who sits on the MSOP task force, and is a co-author of Liebling’s bill, urged his colleagues to address the issue. “I don’t know how we can as legislators, sworn to uphold the constitution, do nothing,” Abeler said. “We have a job to do. Is this a scary bunch of people to deal with? Is there political peril in this? Absolutely.”

Liebling indicated on Monday that DFL and GOP leadership will ultimately need to determine whether the bill receives any more consideration this session. “As we get near the end here, I wanted to give leadership the option to go forward,” she said “There will have to be a decision by leadership about where it can or should go. That’s kind of above my pay grade.”

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