In all the rancor, turmoil and posturing on Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposed budget gutting, and the DFL's eye-popping bonding bill, one item stands out as a sign of the political times.
It is the single largest item in the bonding bill. It is controversial by nature, considered suspect by many legal scholars and criminal behaviorists, and it will likely secure the infrastructure of a permanent and exponentially more expensive government function into perpetuity. Yet it will likely be approved without rigorous debate because politicians never want to see campaign ads saying they are soft on perverts.
Pawlenty wants an $89 million expansion of the facility for sex offenders at Moose Lake, which holds predators we think will re-offend. Public officials might air doubts about civil commitments privately, but they also know it is impossible to offer a nuanced response to a "soft-on-sex-offender" tag.
"This is a tried-and-true political position," said Eric Janus, president and dean of William Mitchell College of Law and author of "Failure to Protect: America's Sexual Predator Laws and the Rise of the Preventive State."
"It's giving in to a broken and misguided system," said Janus. "Nobody likes sex offenders, including myself. The prevention of sex offenders is a clear good. But what we need to do is figure out how best to use our resources to do that."
The Minnesota Sex Offender Program began in an attempt to keep our worst offenders locked up. The Constitution doesn't allow us to punish people for what they might do, so the Legislature created a new class, a "sexually dangerous person," whom we can now commit, potentially forever. They are essentially inmates, disguised as "patients."
Janus has been one of those willing to call a timeout on the project because he believes it veers in dangerous directions. Minnesota has the largest percentage of sexual offenders per capita in such facilities in the nation. More than 30 states have decided there are better and more cost-effective ways to handle violent offenders, he said, but they don't play well in a sound bite.
"Beyond politics, is it good policy? I think not," Janus said. "I don't think we've looked at enough of the knowledge that is already out there. Our entire focus is on repeat offenders, but that is a small part of the problem."
According to a Star Tribune investigation last year, the MSOP dealt with fewer than 3 percent of Minnesota's 20,000 predatory offenders but consumed more than half of what the state spends to control and track them. The MSOP's budget is more than seven times the amount the state spends to monitor the 3,500 sex offenders on probation.
So far, there is only one way to ever leave the program: Die.
Brian McClung, deputy chief of staff for Pawlenty, said "these people have committed the most heinous crimes possible. I've seen letters written by them that would make your blood boil."
The new facility is actually projected to lower the cost of "patient" treatment from $328 to $250 per day, McClung said, and Pawlenty's idea to double prison sentences would steer more offenders to longer and cheaper prison stays.
As a law professor, Janus is keenly concerned about civil rights. But he also knows few people care about civil rights for criminals. People do, however, care about money.
"This is the politically popular approach, but it's wasting money," he said.
Janus thinks more should be spent on prevention, police work to close cases, research as well as less costly supervision.
Rep. Julie Bunn, DFL-Lake Elmo, wants to keep the most dangerous predators locked up, like everybody else. But she's been asking, "Is this model the best value for the money? Is civil commitment even the right mode?"
Until we decide that, however, Bunn said legislators may have to vote to keep offenders off the streets, even if that means funding a massively expensive facility.
Janus understands the dilemma. But he says a slice of that $89 million is for an "assisted living" unit. Janus interviewed a 77-year-old committed man, now disabled, who molested teens 25 years ago by inviting them into his garage for beer. Janus believes the man could be put into less secure, less costly confinement without much risk.
"Why are we paying $100,000 a year to keep disabled people behind razor wire?" he asks.
Janus noted DFLers "creamed" Pawlenty after newly released rapist Alfonso Rodriguez killed Dru Sjodin in 2003, and "he doesn't want that to happen again."
So, now whenever opponents complain that cuts to local government aid are causing cities to layoff police officers, Pawlenty can point to his $89 million monument to safety, whether it's effective or not. And DFLers can trade Pawlenty's dream jail for their own pet projects, and likewise avoid criticisms that they are lax on sex offenders.
"The chances are, this thing will just keep growing until we have the political courage to admit it isn't working," Janus said.
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