Sex offender's escape triggers legislative talk

ST. PAUL - State lawmakers say a convicted rapist's recent escape from a secure hospital could change plans for sex offender treatment funding this year.

ST. PAUL - State lawmakers say a convicted rapist's recent escape from a secure hospital could change plans for sex offender treatment funding this year.

Also, as the escaped sex offender remained on the loose, a Minnesota senator said Wednesday he wants the Legislature to hold special meetings to learn about how the security breach occurred.

Michael Dale Benson, a Level 3 offender, and three other men broke out of a state-run treatment facility in St. Peter on Saturday night by removing a reinforced bar on a window, crawling through a small opening in the shattered glass and fleeing the grounds.

Three men were captured nearby, but Benson, who is considered dangerous, has not been found. Authorities were alerted Monday that a man matching Benson's description was seen driving a stolen car near Bemidji.

Benson's civil commitment to the St. Peter facility stemmed from a 1989 sexual assault conviction in Douglas County. He admitted breaking into a home near Alexandria, assaulting a woman and threatening to kill her.


As the manhunt for the 42-year-old Benson continued this week, Sen. John Hottinger said lawmakers should investigate the escape because there are unanswered questions about security and staffing levels at the hospital.

"There's a lot more to learn about it," the St. Peter DFLer said. Hottinger asked for hearings in the Senate health and public safety committees and will also seek House committee hearings.

The Department of Human Services, which operates the St. Peter facility, will participate in a legislative hearing on the Benson case, Deputy Commissioner Wes Kooistra said.

Such a hearing could take place as the Legislature discusses plans for new sex offender treatment funding as part of revisions to a two-year state budget passed in 2005. Among the proposed changes is an extra $36 million to house more sex offenders at state hospitals.

The Legislature is also poised to approve funding to build a new facility for sex offenders in Moose Lake and for improvements to other complexes, including the St. Peter site.

The Department of Human Services could return to the Legislature before those capital projects are approved to seek further funding for window alarms or a fence for the building from which Benson escaped, Kooistra said. The department is reviewing security measures before presenting new requests.

"The escape tells us that we need to do something different," Kooistra said.

Lawmakers said it's unlikely they will use the Benson case to argue about the existing funding proposal. Many say that may be because Pawlenty and the Legislature provided the resources requested by the Human Services and Corrections departments.


"If we hadn't done that, we'd be asking what we've been doing" to protect the public's safety, said Sen. Wes Skoglund, DFL-Minneapolis, who has worked on sex offender laws.

Some see the Benson case as an example of a problem the Legislature began to fix with a major package of sex offender laws in 2005: Some violent offenders have been deemed mentally ill and housed in hospital facilities that don't have prison-like security.

Employees at the St. Peter facility are not at fault for Benson's escape, said Republican Rep. Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove.

"I don't blame anybody there. I blame the criminal," said Zellers, a Devils Lake, N.D., native who authored sex offender legislation last year. Those laws came after a convicted sex offender was charged with kidnapping and killing University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin.

Rep. Larry Howes, whose legislative district is just south of Bemidji, said Wednesday that he has not heard from constituents worried about Benson's possible presence in the area.

Howes, R-Walker, said the escape could be used as an example of why the funding that has been proposed is needed.

Wente is a writer for the Red Wing Republican Eagle, a Forum Communications newspaper

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