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A steep increase in the rate of sex offenders required to stay incarcerated for treatment after their prison terms is racking up expensive bills for Minnesota counties.
Such "civil commitments" have spiked considerably since the 2003 kidnapping and murder of college student Dru Sjodin by a previously convicted sex offender, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. The civil commitment process can take more than a year, with the county where the offender was convicted paying for hearings, psychological evaluations and other expenses.
If the process winds up with the offender committed to a treatment center, counties also pay for a share of that cost until the offender is deemed "cured." None of the sex offenders civilly committed to the regional treatment centers in St. Peter or Moose Lake have ever been released.
It can all get pricey. For Dakota County, the costs for room-and-board at the two state treatment centers have more than tripled in three years - an increase from $229,000 in 2004 to a projected $741,000 this year. By 2010, the county could pay nearly $1 million annually.
What hasn't increased, despite the referrals from the Department of Corrections, is state funding to help shoulder the burden. Counties in the Twin Cities metro area are accusing the state of backpedaling on its obligation to pay 50 percent of the costs of housing the sex offenders at treatment centers at least until the civil commitment hearings are over - a process that can take more than a year.
"Although the law says it's supposed to be a 50-50 share, we're paying 100 percent because there's no state money allocated for this," Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said. "And that's not appropriate. We're left holding the entire bag."
After the December 2003 arrest of Rodriguez, Corrections Commissioner Joan Fabian directed that the department begin referring all high-risk sex offenders to prosecutors - 236 in that month alone, compared to 13 referrals total in all of 2002.
"In the interest of public safety, (Fabian) wanted to make sure that everyone took a second look at Level 3 offenders, that no one had fallen through the cracks," said Corrections Department spokeswoman Shari Burt. Even offenders already released from prison were referred for commitment.
The referrals have tapered somewhat since 2003, but still remains 20 times as high as they were six years ago.
While commitment hearings unfold, the county must pay about $387 per day to keep the offender incarcerated.
In Ramsey County, those costs are expected to total $670,000 this year, on top of the $370,000 the county will pay to house sex offenders who've already been committed. It's a fivefold increase in two years. Washington County will pay about $300,000 this year - more than 12 times the tab of three years ago.
"It affects your whole budget, because everything has to be squeezed a little tighter," said Daniel Papin, Washington County director of community services.
State statute says costs are to be split 50-50 between county and state, but "the state's responsibility for reimbursement is limited to the amount appropriated for this purpose." In other words, the state's off the hook if the Legislature doesn't set aside funds - and it has not done so in seven years.
Brian McClung, spokesman for Gov. Tim Pawlenty, said the administration is aware of the financial burden for counties, but "public safety is paramount," he said. He noted that the Department of Corrections is making an effort to notify counties of referral at least 12 months before the end of an offender's sentence, so that prosecutors can start the civil hearings while the offender is still behind bars.
A law passed earlier this year also requires counties to begin the commitment hearings within four months of getting the referrals - another attempt to bring down the holding expenses for counties.
"Instead of letting them sit on their desk, they need to process them in a timely fashion," said state Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the Health and Human Services Budget Committee. "There are some counties that have been doing that all along, and they have very low costs."
Backstrom said he agrees with the intent of keeping the public safe. But he said civil commitment hearings are as complex and time-consuming as prosecuting murders.
"It's a good thing that these cases are being referred to the county attorneys' offices," he said. "But we need more funding."
Sunday, October 7, 2007
MN - Counties getting stuck with bills for sex offenders
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