It was the public’s understandable fear of sex offenders that led 1990s Minnesota lawmakers to create the controversial state program that locks up these criminals for years, even decades, after they’ve served their sentences.

But a different and completely inexcusable kind of fear — trepidation about “soft on crime” political attacks — is preventing a new generation of legislators from enacting sorely needed reforms even as the Minnesota Sex Offender Program’s costs soar and as the federal courts send unsubtle signals about the program’s dubious constitutionality.

While the Senate managed to pass modest reforms with bipartisan support this session, legislators in the House failed to join Senate colleagues in signaling watchful federal judges that the state takes their concerns seriously and is taking steps to address them.

House lawmakers instead chose to play chicken with the federal court, essentially daring it to exercise its authority to order changes or even take over the program, by failing to bring even a version of the Senate’s modest legislation to a floor vote. This dereliction of duty, for which both political parties deserve blame, blew what may have been the best opportunity to date to finally begin addressing the program’s thorny problems.

“House leaders did not want to do anything that could be perceived to cause a political liability for them. I think the DFL majority was thinking that way, and the Republicans are anxious to make a political fight over anything to get to their majority back,’’ said State Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove. Limmer voted for the Senate legislation (SF1014) and is a member of a court-mandated state task force on the sex-offender program.

“This is not an issue that politicians should turn into a political playing field, because the consequences if we continue to do nothing are very dire,’’ he said.

If there ever was a year in which the conditions were right to reform the program, 2013 was it. There was no fall legislative election looming. There was widespread agreement on the need not only to act, but to move some offenders into less-restrictive, less-costly settings, as many other states have done successfully.

In-depth studies of the program, such as a 2011 report by the respected Office of the Legislative Auditor, and the work of a bipartisan task force led by former state Supreme Court Justice Eric Magnuson, have been invaluable in building the case for a network of alternative treatment centers. The Dayton administration’s welcome openness to reform also spurred momentum.

Above all, the move by the U.S. District Court last summer created urgency to act. In response to a class-action lawsuit, the two federal judges overseeing the litigation strongly signaled alarm about the constitutionality of locking up sex offenders for “treatment” with almost no chance of release in facilities that strongly resemble prisons.

But the court also wisely gave the state time to reform the program before exercising the court’s authority to make changes. It mandated the impanelment of the task force led by Magnuson (Limmer and three other legislators also are members) but otherwise gave the state a chance to pursue reform.

The legislation passed by the Senate this session simply started the long reform process, calling on the state to establish automatic review of clients’ statuses and to develop an alternative system that still involved strict and intensive supervision. The legislation didn’t tackle the really hard issues: who goes into program and who gets out.

The next installment of the task force’s work, a report due in December, will delve into thornier specifics. The politics of this are only going to get harder, which is why the House’s failure to act is so frustrating.

It’s not as if the House lacked grown-ups on this issue. Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, and Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, both task force members, tirelessly advocated for reform.

But the House reform bill stalled out in committee. Republicans said the issue needed more study and called for roll-call votes, suggesting that support could be a future campaign weapon. The DFL’s House leadership didn’t rise above the gamesmanship to broker bipartisan support or pass the legislation solely on DFL votes.

It’s unclear how long the window of opportunity provided by the federal court will remain open. DFL House leaders now need to engage on this issue. While the topic has been studied exhaustively, Republicans who objected to the reforms should find a way to get their questions answered before the next session starts. If those concerns are serious, GOP House leaders should launch a new study or push to add more legislators to the task force.

“We as a society look at these offenders, and we want to walk away from them with good reason,’’ said Limmer. “We as policymakers don’t have that option.’’


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