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Lawmakers take hard look at sex offender program

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Moose Lake Correctional Facility
This facility in Moose Lake, Minn., houses the state's sex offender treatment program.
Photo Courtesy of the Department of Human Services

Several participants in Minnesota's sex offender treatment program could be freed by Minnesota courts this year.  That has lawmakers evaluating the benefits, and costs, of the state's program to keep sex offenders locked up, even after they leave prison. 

During a House committee hearing Tuesday at the Capitol, officials said they're concerned about public safety, but also worried about skyrocketing costs.

Right now, the state has about 605 former prisoners locked up in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, which has facilities in St. Peter and Moose Lake. The program is meant to offer treatment to the most dangerous sex offenders -- or at least keep them off the streets.

"They have an average of 16 victims. They aren't one-time offenders," said Dennis Benson, director of the program. "They are people who have long histories, and very complex profiles."

At least seven of those offenders are in the process of being released from the state hospital in St. Peter. Two of them could be released as early as this spring. 

"We know how incredibly sensitive this issue is. I think these are part of the population that the public is genuinely afraid of," said Benson. "We want to reassure, to the extent that it is reasonable, that we are going to do everything we can to protect public safety." 

But lawmakers reviewing the program during Tuesday's hearing questioned whether more could be done to protect the public.

"I am talking about chain gangs, where they do strong, physical labor. Which is one of the best medicines for deviant behavior."

"I am talking about chain gangs, where they do strong, physical labor. Which is one of the best medicines for deviant behavior," said Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, who added that the state should even consider castration.

"It sure worked on the farm."

The number of civilly committed sex offenders in Minnesota has tripled since 2003, when North Dakota college student Dru Sjodin, was kidnapped and killed by a recently released Minnesota sex offender.

The program now costs more than $67 million a year.  Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, said  it's one of the fastest growing expenses in the state.

"Many people like to ignore that fact, like to point to health care and other things. But this is one of the fastest growing areas. It's a very expensive per-person, per-day program," said Berglin. 

Total costs run about $328 a day for each person for 2011.

It's also one of the most politically charged issues in state government. 

Republicans like House Public Safety Committee chairman Tony Cornish, of Good Thunder, say the long-term solution is to simply extend prison sentences for crimes already on the books, to keep future offenders in prison -- which is cheaper.

"Right now, politicians can't be too hard on sex offenders. It's just a basic fact," said Cornish. "But with the hard way we approach it, we know that we have to pay for it. So we're up against a wall here, because our citizens are saying, 'Are you kidding? You're going to release these two guys?'"

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty made a similar argument. A report by his administration drew further scrutiny after it was revealed that Pawlenty's  Human Services Commissioner Cal Ludeman removed references to non-custody programs for offenders from the report -- programs that are potential cost savers.

Ludeman, now secretary of the Republican-controlled Senate, said it wasn't a political decision. He said he was managing the expectations for his department.

"When we get into the community supports, and education, and a lot of things that would potentially have a long-term impact on the cost, were not something that DHS alone was able to accomplish. I wanted the report to reflect that nor not say anything about that," said Ludeman. 

DFLers, though, said Republicans were simply trying to look tough on crime, at the expense of taxpayers.

Sen. Berglin said there may be ways to keep people safe and save money at the same time.

"I believe that there are some people that should be committed on more of an outpatient basis," said Berglin. "I'm not saying for everybody. But some people -- I believe with home monitoring  techniques and community-based services, we could protect the public safety at a lower cost."

Officials who run the program told lawmakers today that it in the future, it won't just be a financial problem. The program is projected to run out of space in 2013, and it may eventually run afoul of the courts if no one ever completes treatment and gets released.