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Capitol Chatter: Minnesota struggles in dealing with sex offenders

The Minnesota Sex Offender Program facility at Moose Lake, Minn. Forum News Service file photo

ST. PAUL—Dealing with sex offenders has been one of Minnesota's most difficult problems for at least 15 years.

After a convicted sex offender just out of prison killed Dru Sjodin of Pequot Lakes in 2003, state and local officials scrambled to find ways to keep the state's most dangers sex offenders off the street. Then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Attorney General Mike Hatch looked for a solution, and began a massive effort put the worst sex offenders in a highly secure state hospital, not too different from a prison, after they finished their prison sentences. About 700 are in that program today.

Legislators approved longer prison terms, but that did not affect people already in jail.

Sex offenders who were locked up in the hospital took the state to court, saying their "sex offender treatment program" basically was time in prison beyond what the law allows. They lost the case, but state officials know that if some sex offenders are not released that the next court case could go the other way.

Now, it appears too many Minnesota law enforcement officers do not even take the time to investigate rape cases, let alone arrest a suspect who can go through the legal system and get treatment. A Star Tribune investigation of more than 1,000 sexual assault cases "reveals chronic errors and investigative failings."

The probe showed that in nearly a quarter of the cases "records show, police never assigned an investigator. In about one-third of them, the investigator never interviewed the victim. In half the cases, police failed to interview potential witnesses."

The stories have set off a new round of shock over a subject that keeps coming back to the public eye.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, nearing the end of eight years in office, spoke for Minnesotans: "It was a terrible shocking report." He said he did not know about the problem until he read the news stories.

"Women have been forced to endure severe trauma," he said.

The governor supported other politicians' calls to set up a task force to study the issue.

Dayton saved his harshest words for Nate Gove, executive director of the Peace Officer Standards and Training Board.

Gove said there was little the POST board could do, an answer Dayton could not accept. He called Gove's comment "lethargic," adding that Gove "showed a level of callous indifference."

Dayton said he would write a letter to the board, which is not under his control, asking it take "aggressive" action to make sure Minnesota law enforcement officers know how to deal with sexual assault.

Even before receiving the letter, Gove was reacting to what people thought about his comments.

"The results of the Star Tribune investigation are concerning," he said. "I fully believe that law enforcement and prosecutors can work together more effectively to bring justice to victims of sexual assault."

Before the newspaper's report, Grove said, he had not talked to law enforcement officers or legislators about the need for additional training about sexual assault cases. Now, he said, he is "eager to be a part of the process of figuring out how we can best improve these important investigations from a training and policy perspective."

As to Dayton's feelings, Gove said: "If any of my comments during my lengthy conversation with the Star Tribune came across as callous or unsympathetic, I am truly sorry. As a 28-year law enforcement veteran, I've seen the pain of victims firsthand and take these crimes very seriously."

With Dayton leaving office just before the 2019 legislative session begins, it is unclear who will lead efforts to make changes.

To a question about why sexual assault problems seem to be increasing, Dayton said it is not just sexual assault.

"There is more and more of it going on," he said. "I believe we are an increasingly violent society. There are increasing amounts of violence, really damaging behavior being perpetrated out there."

Dayton has been forced to deal with several violent situations in recent years, such as controversial police officer shootings of civilians. And in recent days, the first killing of a prison guard occurred in Stillwater.

Good, bad news for TPaw

An NBC poll shows former Gov. Tim Pawlenty likely to win the Aug. 14 primary election for governor over Jeff Johnson, but likely to lose the Nov. 6 general election if the Democratic candidate is either Attorney General Lori Swanson or U.S. Rep. Tim Walz.

However, talks with political experts at the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities meeting in Mankato Thursday, July 26, revealed that they are not confident in any poll this election year. They said it is more difficult this year than in elections past to know just who will show up at the polls.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.