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Chuck Johnson explains Senate File 3673, a bill to clarify Minnesota’s civil commitment discharges, as the bill’s author, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, looks on, April 25, 2018 (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)
Chuck Johnson explains Senate File 3673, a bill to clarify Minnesota’s civil commitment discharges, as the bill’s author, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, looks on, April 25, 2018 (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

In the Hopper: Civil commitments; sexual harassment policies

Civil commitments: Responding to what acting Human Services Commissioner Chuck Johnson labeled “an urgent call for action,” the Senate on Monday passed a bill to make it harder for some sex criminals to be fully released from civil commitment.

Senate File 3673 passed unanimously through the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee on March 27. Its author, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, held a press conference Monday to announce the bill would be put to an immediate floor vote.

The bill prevents patients who are mentally ill and dangerous from being fully discharged unless the Human Services commissioner deems they no longer need treatment or supervision. That determination could only be made following a special review board’s recommendation, the bill says.

The bill also prevents those committed as sexually dangerous persons or sexually psychopathic personalities from being fully discharged unless a court determines that they no longer need treatment or supervision.

The bill reacts to a January Minnesota Court of Appeals ruling in the case of Kirk Alan Fugelseth, 51, who was committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program after being judged sexually dangerous and a “sexual psychopathic personality” in 2003.

The Court of Appeals affirmed a judicial panel’s recommendation to fully discharge Fugelseth from the sex offender program. That decision makes him just that program’s second fully discharged patient, Limmer said. The Supreme Court declined last week to review the decision, he said.

Johnson told reporters Monday the ruling might allow patients to skip provisional discharge, an interim step in which offenders get more freedom but remain under supervision. Provisionally discharged sex offenders must wear electronic ankle bracelets, for example, Johnson said.

The state currently has 20 sex offenders provisionally discharged, Johnson said. Another 200 people who are considered mentally ill and dangerous also are provisionally discharged, he said.

“The way this court decision reads, they could be immediately considered for a full discharge,” Johnson said. “That means they would go from being in a supervised situation in the community to being completely unsupervised and free to go where they want to.”

The bill, which passed the full Senate in a 67-0 vote later on Monday, makes clear the difference between full and provisional discharge, Johnson said, and it preserves the provisional discharge option.

Limmer said the legislation results from cooperation between Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration and members of the House and Senate. Rep. Brian Johnson’s version, House File 3782, passed the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee in March.

On Monday, Limmer’s bill was substituted for Johnson’s in the House. Senate File 3673 got its first reading on the House floor on Monday but had yet to be put to a House floor vote at this writing.

 

Sexual harassment: The House moved a step closer to revamping its internal sexual harassment policies Monday while zeroing in on new system for reporting sexual harassment complaints.

Meanwhile, a pair of cloned House bills were introduced Monday that change the judicial standard that sexual harassment must be “severe and pervasive” before getting court consideration.

The House sexual harassment policy changes received thumbs-up from the Workplace Safety and Respect Subcommittee on Monday, in what figures to be its last meeting. The policy is headed to the House Rules Committee, which was expected to take it up on Wednesday, after this story’s deadline.

Because it is a simple policy change, it would go into effect after passage by the Rules Committee without having to go to a floor vote, according to a spokesperson in the House Chief Clerk’s office.

Among its most substantial changes, the new policy would authorize supervisors and others authorized to receive complaints to “take a broad view of what may be harassment, discrimination or retaliation.” They would be instructed to err on the side of prompt reporting.

Among other changes, the policy would authorize the House Human Resources director, after consulting with counsel, to hire outside investigators to look into violations. Results of an investigation into a House member’s conduct would have to be reported both to the speaker and minority leader.

A second resolution also passed onto the rules committee Monday. It would keep the workplace subcommittee intact as a new interim task force and continue its work over the interim months after the legislative session ends.

The group would look into creating a dedicated phone line—something akin to the sexual harassment “hotline” that has been previously discussed. It would also develop a new House website to publish the new policies. And it would develop and administer a House harassment and discrimination survey and issue a report on its findings.

Converting the subcommittee into a task force was not among proposals heard during earlier subcommittee meetings this year. Two recommendations—one to create a citizens advisory panel and another forming an expert task force—apparently were rejected.

“They are clearly not going to do that,” said House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Center. “I think it is a desire not to lose control over the process.”

Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, has convened groups and formed an informal task force to examine sexual harassment issues. That group includes employment attorneys, human resources professionals and workplace advocates and will offer recommendations for change. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, has convened groups and formed an informal task force to examine sexual harassment issues. That group includes employment attorneys, human resources professionals and workplace advocates and will offer recommendations for change. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Hortman pointed out that Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, has used her House power to convene groups and formed an informal task force to examine sexual harassment issues.

That group includes employment attorneys, human resources professionals and workplace advocates and will offer recommendations for further change. It has met once already, but is not expected to reconvene again until after the session’s end.

The two bills introduced Monday are identical—one each from House GOP majority leader and the DFL House minority leader. Altogether, the twin bills carry some 70 coauthors from both parties.

They would clarify that it is not necessary, in order to determine that an environment is intimidating, hostile or offensive under Minnesota Statutes Section 363A.03, that offending conduct must be “severe or pervasive.”

“The bill changes the standard for Minnesota Human Rights Act cases,” said Hortman. “So it would address any court that looked at a human rights act claim, whether it’s a state or federal court.”

The two bills have been referred to the House Civil Law and Data Practices Policy Committee.

Hortman said she has not yet heard if the Senate also intends to look into its sexual harassment policies.

About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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