Is Minnesota's Sex Offender Program broken? Depends upon who you ask.
Names like Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. and places like Concordia Care Center have made "sex offender" household words in the past year.
For that reason about 50 people gathered at Chalberg Theatre at Central Lakes College to listen to state, county and local officials sound off on the topic.
Rodriguez, accused of the Nov. 22 abduction and murder of Dru Sjodin, has past convictions for sexual offenses. It was learned earlier this year that three sex offenders were committed to Concordia Care Center, a nursing home.
The keynote speaker Thursday, Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch, blamed the Minnesota Department of Corrections for not properly handling sex offenders once they are released form prison and serving probation.
Hatch said instead of doing as obligated by state statute, the DOC has been leaving it to county attorneys to make recommendations of civil commitments to treatment centers for sexual offenders.
"The programs works, it just hasn't been handled properly," said Hatch. He said the county attorneys are asked to make so many recommendations on sex offenders a few fall through the cracks.
Hatch also pointed a finger at state budget cuts. He said instead of trying to close regional treatment facilities, such as in Brainerd in Walker, the facilities should be used to house sex offenders who are determined to be a danger.
"Use the hospital there, don't stick these people in nursing homes with our parents," said Hatch, alluding to the discovery earlier this year that sex offenders had been placed at the Concordia Care Center nursing home in Minneapolis.
Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, was one of seven local officials asked to be on a panel to discuss the sex offender issue after Hatch's speech. She took issue with several of Hatch's comments.
Ruud said the DOC acted responsibly in putting three sex offenders in the nursing home. She said one of the sex offenders had the mentality of a 4-year-old, one was bound to a wheelchair and one had a sex offender rating of 1. She also noted that the average age of the patients at the nursing home was 36.
"We did not put sexual predators in with grandma and grandpa," Ruud said.
Ruud said the DOC stopped referring sex offenders for civil commitments because there was such a high bar to prove a commitment was needed, a problem she said has been corrected.
Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, agreed with Hatch's appraisal of the system and said he is in the early stages of drafting a bill that would make civil commitments after the release of sex offenders the responsibility of the state attorney general's office rather than of the county attorneys.
"I think the state shirked its responsibility," Howes said.
And while he doesn't believe it was the DOC's fault that sex offenders were committed to a nursing home, he said there is a problem in that the state doesn't know how many sex offenders may be in nursing homes. He put the blame on the Department of Health and Human Services.
Howes said what people fear is sex offenders falling through the cracks upon release form prison, that they go back into a community without the community's knowledge. Like Hatch, he suggested state hospitals, which already have security in place, be used for commitments.
"I don't look at civil commitment as treatment. I look at it as keeping (dangerous) people off the street," Howes said.
Other panelists shed light on local issues.
Rocky Wells, assistant Crow Wing County attorney, and David Hermerding, managing attorney for the Crow Wing County public defender's office in Brainerd, said sex offenses represent the minority of cases handled in the county district court. Wells noted predatory sex offenders represent a small number of all sex offenses. Several on the panel agreed that there needed to be changes in sentencing guidelines.
"We have a lot of sex offenders in the community, leading productive lives," Wells said. "Just because someone comes in on a sex offense, we don't throw away the key."
Hermerding noted the system is broken in that there aren't enough resources to adequately represent criminal offenders, including sex offenders.
Frank Webber, a psychologist, said the system isn't working because taxpayer money is being wasted on treatment for sex offenders who refuse to change. Webber said the state also is punishing juvenile offenders, many of whom come from abusive backgrounds or broken homes, instead of properly treating them.
Debi Backdahl, Crow Wing County sheriff's chief deputy, and Todd Strange, Crow Wing County probation officer, noted the need for collaboration between departments, both state and local, in dealing with sex offenders because once they are released from prison they are the responsibility of county agencies.
Strange, who works almost exclusively with sex offenders, said the recidivism rate is 1.3 percent. He said what's in place is working.
"If you choose to, you can pick apart any system and find the flaws but I don't agree our system is broken," Strange said.
The sex offender forum was sponsored by the Gordon Rosenmeier Center for State and Local Government.
MATT ERICKSON can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5857.
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