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Senate passes sex offender legislation with bipartisan support

Paul Demko//May 14, 2013

Senate passes sex offender legislation with bipartisan support

Paul Demko//May 14, 2013

Sen. Kathy Sheran (staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

House Republicans have opposed companion bill

The Senate passed legislation on Tuesday making significant changes to the state’s troubled civil commitment program for sex offenders with bipartisan support. Minority Leader David Hann and eight other Republicans were among the 44 senators voting in favor of the proposal.

A pair of Senate DFLers — Matt Schmit of Red Wing and Susan Kent of Woodbury —  voted against the legislation. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato.

The legislation faces an uncertain fate in the House. The House companion bill, sponsored by Rep. Tina Liebling, R-Rochester, passed out of the Judiciary Finance and Policy Committee on Friday evening, but without any Republican support. DFL leaders have indicated that they won’t move forward unless there is a commitment from Republicans to provide some votes for the politically volatile issue.

“In a number of conversations, we have asked for and continue to look for bipartisan support for this issue,” said House Majority Leader Erin Murphy on Tuesday. “In committee the other night, that was clearly not evident.”

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt has been noncommittal about rounding up GOP votes. “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.”

Murphy sees a greater sense of urgency to address the MSOP. “It is an issue that needs attention,” she said. “[Daudt]’s not taking the opportunity to solve the problem in front of us.”

The legislative proposal was put forth in response to recommendations from a court-appointed task force led by former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson that has been meeting since November. That panel stems from a class-action lawsuit in federal court challenging the conditions of confinement for nearly 700 individuals involuntarily enrolled in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP). Over more than two decades, just one individual has been provisionally discharged from the program. The fear is that if the state doesn’t take action to correct the MSOP’s constitutional flaws, the federal court could order it to make changes — regardless of expense or public safety.

The legislation would create a two-part process for civil commitment. If a judge initially determines that an individual should be committed to the MSOP, there would then follow a second hearing at which the appropriate setting and treatment regimen would be determined. Currently every individual who is civilly committed is sent to prison-like facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter.

The bill would also create a mandatory biennial review for every MSOP enrollee. The Minnesota Department of Human Services would be required to appoint an examiner to evaluate their progress in treatment and whether they’re in the appropriate location.

Republicans did raise some concerns about the legislation during the Senate debate. Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, raised questions about whether the fiscal note adequately addresses all of the costs that will be triggered by the legislation. Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, questioned the wisdom of potentially putting the state’s most dangerous sex offenders in less restrictive settings.

“They’re the worst of the worst,” said Ingebrigtsen, who voted against the bill. “We must move very cautiously here.”

But ultimately, several Republicans acknowledged that the status quo is unacceptable given the threat of federal intervention. “All we have been doing is piling these offenders up within the civil commitment system,” said Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, who voted for the proposal. “We really have not addressed the problem at all.”

Now attention will turn to the House, where the bill currently sits in the Rules and Legislative Administration Committee. Liebling’s proposal does have support from at least one Republican, Rep. Jim Abeler of Anoka, who is a cosponsor. But Murphy reiterated on Tuesday that the MSOP bill will not move forward unless it can pick up broader Republican support.

“It is an issue that people could so easily play politics with, and it’s so important for us to get the policy right,” Murphy said.

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