By Susan Gaertner
The abduction of Dru Sjodin has galvanized public resolve to safeguard our society against sex offenders. How can we prevent such horrifying crimes from happening? Voices full of heartbreak, anger and frustration demand an answer.
In my view, we need a radical change in the way sex offenders are sentenced. The best way to protect the public is to adopt an open-ended sentencing system for these dangerous predators -- an idea that numerous policymakers have advocated over the past decade.
The way it works now, a convicted sex offender is sentenced to prison for a specific period of time. Like all convicted felons, sex offenders are sentenced in accordance with the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines. Under this system, sentences are determined by the severity of the offense and the defendant's criminal history. Designed to provide consistency and fairness, the Guidelines generally work well for most crimes.
The Guidelines, however, fail to provide adequate protection against sex offenders, and hereís why: Once a sex offender has served his time, the Corrections Department has no choice but to release him -- even if he seems at considerable risk to re-offend. The only option is to refer the case to a county attorney for possible civil commitment proceedings. If an offender meets the very high legal standard for commitment as a "sexual psychopathic personality" or "sexually dangerous person," the courts may commit him to a state hospital for an indefinite period.
In the wake of Dru Sjodin's abduction, some have ballyhooed civil commitment as a surefire shield against sex offenders. And for some predators, commitment definitely is the right answer. The problem is, only a small percentage of offenders meet the stringent legal criteria for commitment. No one can even say for sure that Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., the defendant in Ms. Sjodin's abduction, could have been committed. Commitment also comes at major expense to taxpayers. It costs three times as much to house a sex offender in a state hospital, compared with prison.
Civil commitment, then, isn't a viable option for most offenders, and our Sentencing Guidelines donít provide enough safeguards. Thatís why an open-ended, or indeterminate, sentencing plan is needed for sex offenders. Under this system, a convicted sex offender would receive a maximum and minimum sentence. For first-degree criminal sexual conduct, the range might be from 12 years to 40 years.
The minimum sentence ensures adequate punishment. The upper limit is needed to meet constitutional scrutiny. The middle range allows for individual determinations on the risk of returning a sex offender to society. We can't eliminate the risk that an offender will commit new crimes after release, but we can minimize that possibility.
Under open-ended sentencing, the corrections commissioner or a parole board would weigh a wide range of factors in making release decisions. Has the inmate completed treatment successfully? Has he participated in counseling? Has he shown remorse? In all respects, does he belong back in the community? Under our present system, the answers to such questions aren't determinative of a sex offender's release date. When he's due for release, heís out -- barring civil commitment.
Indeterminate sentencing for sex offenders makes sense. It would accomplish much of what commitment aims to do, but would affect many more offenders at considerably less cost. Sex offenders are a serious enough category of criminals to warrant a separate sentencing structure. Open-ended sentencing is our best hope to prevent future tragedies.
Susan Gaertner is the Ramsey County attorney.