By Mike Kaszuba

A proposal to toughen sentences for sex offenders -- and dramatically reduce the controversial use of civil commitments -- won approval Friday from a Minnesota Senate panel.

Following a long afternoon debate, the Senate Judiciary Committee narrowly approved a plan that would impose mandatory indeterminate life and indeterminate maximum sentences for many of those convicted of sex offenses in Minnesota.  The legislation also would create a three-member review board that would make decisions to release an offender, and would require anyone who is released by the board to be supervised for the rest of their life.

The plan, which is sure to attract more scrutiny in the coming weeks, would make anyone sentenced under the new program ineligible to be civilly committed for treatment following their prison term.

Sponsored by Sen. Linda Scheid, DFL-Brooklyn Park, the legislation takes direct aim at Minnesota's use of civil commitments to keep sex offenders in treatment programs after they have served their prison sentences.  The practice has been a lightening rod for controversy this year between Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Legislature, largely because no sex offender has been successfully treated and because the program is facing spiraling costs.

"We spend so much money," said Scheid.  "To me, it's a black hole."

But Harry Kennedy, the sex offender policy coordinator for the Pawlenty administration, said the proposal was flawed, and would in effect eliminate the use of civil commitments.  "This is a very serious concern," he said.

Kennedy also said the proposal left unclear whether all sentences would be toughened, and said having a board periodically review a case would place a reoccurring hardship on victims.

Pawlenty unveiled his own proposal to toughen prison sentences for sex offenders earlier this year, asking that those convicted of first-degree criminal sexual conduct have their presumptive sentences increased from 12 to 25 years.  Sex offenders, the governor said in announcing the initiative, "need to be kept off the street for as long as possible."

But Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul, the Senate Judiciary Committee chair, called Scheid's proposal a broader approach to the problem.  The governor's proposal, she said, was "simple in terms of the 'messaging', but I don't know that it is effective in capturing the 'bad' people."

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