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January 6, 2005

The power of the headline-making crime

I have often lauded Minnesota for its handling of Blakely issues (see here and here), and Professor Richard Frase's recent article (discussed here) highlights Minnesota's guideline system as a model for other jurisdictions.  But the latest news from Minnesota highlights that even this state can have its sentencing policy influenced greatly by one headline-making crime.

As detailed in this article, as a result of the disappearance of Dru Sjodin, a college student kidnapped from a North Dakota mall, the state has been considering sex-offender legislation and Governor Tim Pawlenty has labeled sex offenders "his number public safety issue."  In this well-done editorial, the Minnesota Star-Tribune highlights the problem with such an approach to criminal justice policy-making:

Not every tragedy can be prevented by legislation. Not every crime is reason to revamp the criminal code. These are lessons Minnesota leaders should take to heart as they think about how to handle Minnesota's sex offenders. Though the topic sits near the top of this session's agenda, it's not at all clear that any of the various "reforms" so far proposed would actually enhance public safety.

It's easy to see why state leaders are now so keen to crank up sentences for sex crimes, They are properly horrified by the 2003 kidnapping and murder of student Dru Sjodin and the subsequent arrest of a just-released repeat sex offender for the crime. When constituents get riled about a particular crime, lawmakers scramble to toughen penalties.

It's a natural impulse, and this session has given rise to at least two proposals for cracking down on sex offenders: Gov. Tim Pawlenty's plan to require "indeterminate" prison terms for all sex offenders and a bid by the state's Sentencing Guidelines Commission to stretch sentences for all sex crimes and reserve indefinite terms only for serious repeaters. Both plans call for a parole board to decide whether and when inmates can be released.

Reviving the parole board is indeed appealing -- so long as it's empowered to consider all inmates' fates. The move would likely be unnecessary if the Sentencing Guidelines Commission, which replaced the board in 1982, were left alone to fulfill its term-setting charge. But the legislative habit of tinkering with sentence lengths has hobbled the commission's ability to assure a fair system of punishment -- thereby raising doubts about whether all wrongdoers are ending up where they should. In fact, it seems likely that many Minnesotans would agree that too many prison beds are now filled by offenders who could more readily be helped and held to account in some other venue....

Lawmakers should be skeptical of all proposals to revamp Minnesota's approach to managing sex offenders. After all, it could very well be that the current system generally works very well -- so long as people follow the rules. The heartbreak of Sjodin's murder -- a crime for which Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. stands accused -- can't be attributed to a flaw in state law.... This isn't to say that state sex-crime laws couldn't benefit from fine-tuning. But it's simply incorrect to blame Sjodin's death on feeble state statutes. Fault is more properly placed on a moment of misjudgment, most certainly related to cost-saving pressures within state departments. It could be that the smartest thing lawmakers can do this year is to assure that the programs charged with handling sex offenders have everything they need to perform well.

January 6, 2005 at 10:26 AM | Permalink


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is it possible for a level 2 sex offender to
be married to someone who has a child. or
is it better recommended for them to have
no contact with children. I am doing a
research paper for college and sex offenders
are my subject.

Posted by: heather | May 13, 2005 8:45:54 PM

Hello, I am a collage student and I am a doing a essay on Repeat Sex Offenders. And I would like to get some information on the types of punishment that the criminals get.

Heather Hungate

Posted by: Heather Hungate | Aug 9, 2005 2:28:29 AM

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