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Gov. wants longer sentences for those convicted of first-degree sex crimes

Gov. Tim Pawlenty announces Tuesday that he wants first-de-gree sex offender sentences to more than double to 25 years. Tribune photo by Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants to double some sex offender sentences, the latest in a series of related moves over the years.

Under the plan the Republican governor announced Tuesday, a first-degree sex offender would receive a sentence of at least 25 years, compared to the current 12- year sentence.

The governor's plan, however, received mixed reaction from a group of key Democratic lawmakers.

Sen. Mary Olson of Bemidji, vice chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she likes extending prison sentences.

However, Judiciary Finance Chairman Leo Foley of Coon Rapids, a retired state trooper, said he would prefer to spend money on rehabilitating sex offenders than just keeping them in prison longer.

"It's not really going to do anything," Foley said of Pawlenty's plan.

Pawlenty summed up his philosophy about sex offenders: "They need to be kept off the street for as long as possible."

The governor said his proposal would cost the state no more than $5 million, and no increase in cost would come for years.

While he won legislative approval to give life sentences to some who are convicted of particularly heinous sex crimes, Pawlenty said that did not go far enough.

In the past, he has suggested the death penalty for some especially heinous crimes, which has not passed.

Tuesday's proposal is the latest in a series from both parties to get tough on sex offenders, and longer sentences have been approved. The movement began after the death of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin in 2003 and the arrest of convicted sex offender Alfonso Rodriguez in the crime. Sjodin's body was found near Crookston.

Sex offender numbers have risen 41 percent in the past decade, with 1,646 in Minnesota prisons now, Corrections Commissioner Joan Fabian said.

While calling for increased sentences, Pawlenty also asked the Legislature to approve $89 million to expand a Moose Lake facility to hold more sex offenders who have completed their prison terms.

State law requires sex offenders deemed most likely to reoffend to be sent indefinitely to the sex offender program for treatment, but no one ever has been released.

Public works funding bills written by legislative Democrats do not include the Moose Lake funding. However, Pawlenty said, the bills include funding for projects that are much less important such as civic centers in Mankato, Rochester and St. Cloud.

Last year, Fabian's department examined records of 850 sex offenders and recommended 114 of them be sent to Moose Lake, Fabian said.

Pawlenty said that "it is very difficult to treat them."

Foley disagreed, calling for more emphasis on treatment than Pawlenty wants.

As a lawyer, Olson said, she fears the treatment program could be ruled unconstitutional because people sent there never get out. Olson and Pawlenty both said cost also is a concern for offenders in Moose Lake, which costs $325 a day for each offender, compared to $63 for prisoners.

On the other hand, she has been talking about increasing prison sentences, much like Pawlenty wants.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.