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Dayton suspends Minnesota sex offender releases

Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, with Gov. Mark Dayton, talks about a new plan to keep sex offenders in treatment Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, until legislators and Dayton agree on a new plan. FORUM NEWS SERVICE | Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota sex offenders who remain locked up after their prison terms end are supposed to have a chance to go free, but Gov. Mark Dayton on Wednesday snuffed out that hope until he and legislators can agree on a new process.

He said political reaction to the potential release of a man convicted in three sex crimes persuaded him to end sex offender releases.

“I believe this decision should be made by professionals, not politicians,” Dayton said, adding that he and legislators must agree on how to handle sex offenders before he allows any to go free.

However, a three-judge panel next year could opt to free three sex offenders, including the man whose potential release created the controversy.

Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said that since the three are in the court system, there is nothing she can do to stop the proceedings. However, she does plan to expand her department’s investigation into Thomas Duvall, 58, to provide the judges with more information that could keep him in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program.

Duvall’s record includes three convictions for sexually assaulting teenage girls. A Human Services Department panel recommended that his release be considered by the judicial panel, an action that set off a series of heated comments from Republicans who want to challenge Dayton in next year’s election.

"It was just made clear that this was an issue that would be seized upon and abused by some who don't mind scaring the people of Minnesota for their own advantage," Dayton said. "We just can't proceed in that environment."

The state’s sex offender program is where many serious sex offenders are sent after their prison terms end. It is supposed to be treatment, but just one man has graduated from the program and been released from the locked facilities in the 20 years it has existed.

In response to a suit by sex offenders, a federal judge ruled that the state must change its “civil commitment” program to give offenders a chance to be free. Otherwise, the judge said, requiring treatment after prison terms end amounts to life sentences.

“These people should never walk free,” Dayton said of his personal feelings, but since the law requires a chance for freedom, state officials are forced to craft a new plan.

The state has 697 men and one woman in its sex offender program.

The Republican who was loudest in his criticism of Dayton’s decision to back a potential Duvall release remained hot Wednesday.

Rep. Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, a candidate for governor, said Dayton “continues to recklessly disregard the safety of Minnesotans by supporting the release of serial rapist Thomas Duvall.”

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, urged lawmakers from both parties to work toward a solution.

Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said the situation is tricky because at some point when sex offenders are released someone will reoffend, creating a new controversy.

Dayton said the state needs to convince the federal judge that progress is being made to craft a treatment program that can produce graduates. Otherwise, the governor added, federal courts could take over the sex offender program and release people who may not be safe to allow on Minnesota streets.

Dayton’s order to Jesson ended, for now, offenders’ hopes of leaving state treatment facilities in St. Peter and Moose Lake. The governor also ordered her to stop plans to move some offenders to a Cambridge facility.

State officials have tried for more than a year to find a way to change the state sex offender program so a federal judge will not take it over.

A 15-person task force led by former state Chief Justice Eric Magnuson is looking at ways Minnesota can meet federal requirements, with recommendations due early next month. A preliminary recommendation suggests establishing a new panel of sex offender experts to screen people for commitment to the post-prison treatment program.

Civil sex offender commitments have increased dramatically since University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin was kidnapped and murdered, with her body found near Crookston in 2004. The man sentenced to the death in the case, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., was a convicted sex offender who had recently been released from prison.

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.