D.J. Tice: It's easy to pounce on that political football

  • Article by: D.J. TICE , Star Tribune Commentary Editor
  • Updated: October 31, 2009 - 7:47 PM

The tougher issues involve the cost of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program -- and whether it is a just endeavor to begin with.

Following controversy over the big-screen televisions at the sex offender treatment facility in Moose Lake, Minn., Gov. Tim Pawlenty ordered that the TVs be removed and installed instead in veterans’ homes and at National Guard bases.

Photo: Mike Kaszuba, Associated Press - Ap

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"Are these eyes looking out for us...? No. These eyes just watched as administrative bungling and the wrong budget priorities let rapists and sexual predators back on our streets. ..." So went the text of a television attack ad the Minnesota DFL aired in March 2004. Remembering it sheds light on the political antics that have followed a recent Star Tribune report about pricey flat-screen TVs being installed at the state's new hospital/prison for sexual predators. The menacing "eyes" glaring from the DFL's 2004 commercial turned out to be those of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who had for months been under fire from prominent DFLers for allegedly letting money concerns get in the way of aggressively locking up sexual monsters.

"Pawlenty's position against taxes is 'putting our kids in danger,'" former Attorney General Mike Hatch had warned, according to the Star Tribune's report of a news conference at which Hatch and other DFLers appeared beside the mother of a young store clerk horribly murdered by a predator.

Evidently, priorities have changed for some DFLers, who have seized on the high-priced-TV scandal to fault Pawlenty for the soaring overall costs of the state's sex offender program -- about $76 million a year. Now, it seems, the governor may be locking up too many sex offenders.

"When Pawlenty took office in 2003 there were about 200 'patients' in this program," complained stalwart Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, in a recent commentary on these pages. "There are now 566." The number "will nearly double" by 2016, she warned.

That's what keeping them off our streets looks like.

If some DFLers seem to have conveniently forgotten their party's role in inspiring the growth of this program, the governor's political courage in this latest affair hasn't exactly been the stuff of song and story. He ordered the lavish television sets removed from the sex offender facility and reinstalled in veterans homes and at National Guard bases -- bravely exposing a preference for inspiring heroes over loathsome sickos.

But "the buck stops here" isn't quite Pawlenty's motto. He has vowed to track down and discipline the fugitive bureaucrat who dreamed up the flat-screens-for-fiends program. A subsequent news story included this delicious update: "[A] search for whomever made the decision ... continues."

Yes, this could take a while. One imagines braying bloodhounds scrambling through a maze of abandoned office cubicles.

While the political contortions are laughable, there is nothing very funny about the mess that is the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP). Hardly anything is more important than protecting Minnesotans from dangerous criminals -- but protecting constitutional rights and the rule of law comes close.

And this story involves failures on both fronts, by leaders in all parties and all branches of government.

For a definitive telling of this troubling tale, revisit Star Tribuner Larry Oakes' 2008 series, "Locked in Limbo -- The New Life Sentence," at StarTribune.com's Investigators section. Meanwhile, here's a short version:

Back in the early 1990s, crime was epidemic and attitudes were changing. Officials in Minnesota and elsewhere concluded that criminal sentencing had been too lenient in previous decades, especially for sex offenders. Laws were widely toughened, but the problem remained of dangerous men coming due for release after completing prison sentences imposed years before.

Solution? Prosecutors would seek to commit the scariest due-for-release sex offenders to secure mental wards as, in effect, dangerously insane.

At first state and federal courts balked, basically ruling that offenders would have to be proven genuinely mentally ill, not just potentially dangerous, to be given a "new life sentence." That's because the Constitution doesn't allow government to punish people for crimes they may commit in the future. Nor can it reach back and change laws that applied when a previous crime was committed.

Undeterred, the Minnesota Legislature convened in special session in August 1994 and unanimously passed a new law that GOP Gov. Arne Carlson proudly signed. It created a new class of person with fewer rights -- a "sexually dangerous person" -- who is essentially somebody who committed one or more sex crimes in the past and still frightens the bejeebers out of us.

Courts have accepted this sleight of hand but have insisted that people committed under these laws must be treated as patients, not prisoners. All this has helped make the program costly -- about $134,000 per patient annually, compared with $45,000 for a prison inmate.

Minnesota's program grew slowly at first, until Pawlenty came under the DFL's fire, especially after the horrifying rape and murder of Dru Sjodin by a sex offender who might have been committed but wasn't.

Since then, as Berglin noted, the program's population has soared.

So while the hunt goes on for the boobeaucrat behind the boob tubes, there's no mystery about who's responsible for the MSOP mess. Nearly all the leading political peacocks of the past 15 years have played a role.

We need shed no tears for most of the sex criminals languishing in the "hospital," but some who don't belong there have likely gotten swept up in the backside-covering exercise this has become.

As it happens, a committed offender named Robert Tolbert was released in August by an Olmsted County judge who ruled that he didn't belong in the program. He is apparently the first ever discharged from MSOP, but may not be the last.

In any case, we ought never take it lightly when basic constitutional principles are circumvented with a wink and a nod.

Hardly anything is scarier than sexually dangerous persons -- but politically dangerous persons come close.

D.J. Tice is at dtice@startribune.com.

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