Elected officials can and often do survive sex scandals. Sure, they pay a price in embarrassment and humiliation and might see an interruption in their career, but after a period of public penitence and private fence-mending, there's often light at the end of the tunnel.
But pity the politician who gets a reputation for being "soft on sex offenders." That's a label that, when printed in large type on an opponents' campaign literature, can be a game-changer. No one runs commercials saying "He's a bad husband," but foes won't hesitate to say, "He put rapists back on the streets."
So, we understand Minnesota legislators' obvious lack of enthusiasm for reforming the state's civil commitment system for sex offenders, even as it's facing a challenge on constitutional grounds. Furthermore, we realize that Gov. Mark Dayton had little choice but to publicly declare that every one of the state's 690 civilly committed sex offenders will stay behind bars until the Legislature figures out how to reform the system.
After all, when Dayton didn't oppose the possible release of convicted rapist _____ — who has been civilly committed for more than two decades — he faced immediate (and entirely predictable) backlash from one of his likely foes in the 2014 gubernatorial race.
That criticism, from Rep. Kurt Zellers, may have been at least partly politically motivated, but it was well-justified nevertheless. Given Duvall's lengthy history of violent, brutal sexual assaults on at least 60 women and girls — some as young as 14 — he's not the guy we'd choose to demonstrate that people can actually complete the Minnesota Sex Offender Program and re-enter society. Regardless of what the Legislature does or does not do next year, we suspect (and hope) _____ will remain under lock and key for a long, long time.
Still, it's worth noting that not every offender in Moose Lake and St. Peter has a record like _____'s. More than 50, in fact, have no adult convictions on their records. Even more have developmental disabilities and/or are elderly and thus would be unlikely to re-offend if they were housed in less-restrictive, less-expensive environments.
But again, no one — especially politicians — want to be seen as having opened the doors to release sex offenders. That's why reforms to the MSOP have been so slow to happen, even as U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank prepares to hear arguments Dec. 18 that the system is inhumane, inadequate and unconstitutional. More than a dozen MSOP "patients" are plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit, and there's every indication their claims have some merit.
Barring the unlikely event that Frank shuts down the MSOP outright (or says it's fine as is), we see no way for the DFL-led Legislature to avoid this issue next year. MSOP has no track record of successful treatment, is incredibly costly and puts judges in impossible positions when considering the possible civil commitment of young sex offenders who have served their criminal sentences.
The system is bursting at the seams, and something's gotta give.
So the DFL will have to bear down and get the job done next spring, even if it is distasteful and difficult. It's entirely possible that some legislators will pay a political price for their efforts when the 2014 elections roll around.
We hope, however, that leaders in the Republican caucus will recognize that this issue goes beyond politics. Indeed, the best reforms for the civil commitment system would be achieved through bipartisan efforts, with both parties having some "ownership" of the MSOP reforms — which are unlikely to be popular among the voting public.
People tend to like the "throw away the key" approach for sex offenders, constitutionality notwithstanding, but Minnesotans should prepare themselves for the likelihood that this method won't survive for another year.