Getting tough on sex offenders

Individuals who commit such disturbing crimes are often beyond rehabilitation.

Last week’s report on sex offender release programs, released by state Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles, offers a fine starting point for state officials looking for a better way to manage the sex offenders. That’s a welcome sign for the many Minnesota communities grappling with the challenges of living next door to convicted sex offenders.

Since Dru Sjodin’s kidnapping and murder in 2003, state efforts to track sex offenders and lower recidivism rates have been under the microscope of public opinion. Unfortunately, both the Legislature (through inaction) and Gov. Tim Pawlenty (through hysteria) have failed to reassure concerned communities across the state that convicted sex offenders are being adequately monitored. The tough assessment brings Minnesota one step closer to a reasonable and effective response.

The report points the finger at a community supervision system hampered by a lack of state-level coordination and inadequate funding for treatment programs. While sex offenders released from prison are subject to stringent community notification laws, most Minnesota sex offenders receive only probation and are exempted from those requirements. Until now, those offenders have quietly fallen through the cracks, assigned to inadequately trained or overworked probation supervisors.

The result is a system that subjects the average sex offender to fewer than three home visits per year. The report aimed its recommendations at this defect, suggesting the development of consistent policy guidelines, greater coordination of community supervision at the state level, more home visits and the use of polygraph tests. Those are sensible, cost-effective reforms that deserve serious attention from the Legislature.

Pawlenty has his own plan, which one-ups the audit by advocating tougher sentences for the most serious and violent sex crimes, more extensive monitoring of offenders and additional funding for new prisons. Pawlenty’s plan is long on toughness, which is good, but overly inflexible. Locking repeat sex offenders up indefinitely is necessary to protect society, but truly throwing away the key is inconsistent with our system of justice.

All this would be a marked improvement over a system in obvious need of repair. Partisan bickering at the Legislature stymied reform in 2004, while Pawlenty wasted time pushing to impose the death penalty for some sex crimes. With a wise set of recommendations now before them, Pawlenty and the Legislature have no reason not to enact much-needed reform.