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Political reaction changed mind on sex offenders

By DON DAVIS, Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — Politics made him do it.

In essence, that is the reason Gov. Mark Dayton gave for putting the brakes on further sex offender releases.

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“We are facing this decision together,” the Democratic governor said, while blasting House Republicans for not going along with plans earlier this year to change the sex offender release process.

Dayton is conflicted about the issue. While he said that serious sex offenders never “should walk free,” he also realizes a federal judge is forcing the state to make sure sex offenders get treatment so they can be freed.

Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, who works for Dayton, had recommended that a judicial panel consider releasing three sex offenders, including one with three convictions for sexually abusing teen girls. That raised the ire of many, especially Republicans and former House Speaker Kurt Zellers in particular.

Zellers, R-Maple Grove, went to the University of North Dakota, which Dru Sjodin attended when she was kidnapped and killed a decade ago. Convicted in the crime was a Minnesota sex offender who had been released from prison not long before Sjodin disappeared.

Zellers authored a 2004 bill providing harsher sex offender penalties.

Dayton criticized comments like those from Zellers, who said Dayton “continues to recklessly disregard the safety of Minnesotans by supporting the release of serial rapist Thomas Duvall. I call on Gov. Dayton to join with me and Attorney General Lori Swanson to halt the release of Duvall.”

The issue is tricky.

Minnesota has upped prison terms for sex offenders since the Sjodin kidnapping. But that only applies to those convicted since the laws began; they cannot be applied to people already sentenced.

The state deals with sex offenders in two ways. First, a conviction can land them in prison.

Once the prison term is over, county attorneys may ask judges to commit some of the worst offenders to treatment. The theory is that once treated, they can be released.

However, only one man in the 20 years the treatment program has existed has graduated and been released. Essentially, being committed is the same as a life prison term.

That is fine with many Minnesotans, Dayton said, but a federal judge says it violates the offenders’ rights. If Minnesota does not develop a new program, and do it soon, the judge may opt to take over the program.

If federal courts run the sex offender treatment program, many Minnesota state officials fear offenders who are released still could pose a public safety risk. They do not trust the federal government to put Minnesotans’ safety on the top of their priority list.

So state legislators, the Dayton administration and a task force are looking for ways to meet federal law but still keep sex offenders away from potential victims.