Minnesota, ND cracked down on sex offenders after Sjodin case

St Peter Regional Treatment Center
The sign outside the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center. A convicted rapist escaped from this facility last month and was captured later out of state.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

(AP) - Minnesota commits many more sex offenders to security hospitals after their prison sentences run out than it did before 2003. North Dakota also expanded its sex offender treatment program. Both states also adopted tougher sentencing for new offenses.

The changes are partly a response to how Minnesota let convicted sex offender Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. go free in 2003, six months before Sjodin's abduction. He faces the death penalty when he jury selection begins in his trial Thursday in Fargo, N.D., in her kidnapping and death.

"It led to a sea change in thinking about how we sentence dangerous sex offenders," said Eric Lipman, the sex offender policy coordinator for Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Rodriguez is accused of abducting Sjodin, a University of North Dakota student, in Grand Forks, N.D., killing the Pequot Lakes woman, and dumping her body near Crookston. He'd been living there since finishing a 23-year prison term for attempted kidnapping and assault. He had previous convictions for aggravated and attempted rape.

Brian Weigel, a specialist in North Dakota's Parole and Probation Division, said the Sjodin case led his state to take a closer look at its entire range of programs dealing with sex offenders.

You realize that keeping society safe comes with a price. The question is how much of that government is able to do.

"That case put it in the forefront," he said. "The most horrific thing that could happen on this Earth - we are using it for something positive."

Minnesota officials had classified Rodriguez as a Level 3 sex offender - the kind deemed most likely to strike again. But they decided against trying to commit him as a sexual predator so that he could have been held indefinitely. Because he served his entire 23-year sentence, he was under no restrictions when he left prison.

Stung by the criticism that followed Rodriguez' arrest, the Minnesota Department of Corrections began referring every case of a Level 3 offender approaching release to local prosecutors for a decision on whether to seek commitment. Corrections had previously referred only selected cases.

About 350 Level 3 offenders are now committed indefinitely at the Moose Lake and St. Peter security hospitals, up from about 190 in mid-2003.

Around 15 to 28 offenders were committed per year before the Sjodin kidnapping. The number hit 58 last year, and the state is projecting the program will grow at about that level for the next several years.

While prosecutors are getting far more commitments than before, it's widely considered a partial solution at best. It costs $281 a day to keep a sex offender at Moose Lake or St. Peter, compared with about $76 to keep one in prison.

In theory, the people in Minnesota's program could complete the treatment and get out, but as a practical matter nobody does. Perhaps because of that, more than half of the people locked up are refusing treatment.

"Given the political circumstances, I don't see that (release) happening in the near future," said Eric Janus, a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.

North Dakota had 22 people civilly committed from 1997 to about 2004. That's up to 46 or 47 now, said Duane Houdek, a spokesman for North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven, "and we know that's going to expand. We really broadened the net to look at lower levels of sex offenders than we had been doing."

North Dakota Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Byers said it costs about $90,000 a year for a civil commitment in North Dakota, or about three times what it would be to keep that person in prison.

"You realize that keeping society safe comes with a price," Byers said. "The question is how much of that government is able to do."

Janus called the jump in commitments a "knee-jerk response." But he said Minnesota's second set of changes - longer sentences plus closer scrutiny for sex offenders on parole - was the product of a much more thoughtful process.

Legislators in Minnesota and North Dakota voted to impose life sentences for the most serious sex crimes, including life without parole when murder is involved.

In Minnesota, starting Aug. 1, sentences for all other sex crimes also will be longer, particularly for repeat offenders, and inmates who don't do well in treatment will get extra prison time. Those who do go free will face much more intensive supervision in the community.

North Dakota created a special unit in its Parole and Probation Division. Weigel is one of seven specialists in it, trained to supervise sex offenders on parole.

"We're able to monitor better and assist them, and early on, when we see them in a relapse cycle, we're able to intervene, or we're able to intervene early and take them off the streets early," Weigel said. "Everybody benefits."

Houdek, a member of a governor's task force looking at sex offender laws in North Dakota, said they'd found that many sex offenders were being sentenced "with absolutely no supervision to follow their prison term."

The changes that followed the Sjodin kidnapping are just the latest ratcheting up of sentences for sex offenders, said Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, president of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association. Other shocking cases in recent decades also resulted in longer prison terms for sex offenders, she noted. And she stressed that while the latest increases in sentences are welcome, they aren't enough.

"I hope that when the headlines fade that we still have a commitment to supervision and treatment of those that will be released," she said. "We have to have all three - long sentences for the worst of the worst, treatment for those in our facilities, and supervision of those who are released."

Lipman said Minnesota's third phase of reforms will be a major upgrade in monitoring sex offenders on parole. A working group will issue proposals in February.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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