ST. PAUL - Rep. Larry Howes wants to stop the blame game that has swirled around Minnesota government since Alfonzo Rodriguez was arrested in December 2003.
Howes, R-Walker, said he mostly wants to make sure sex offenders are committed to state hospitals when needed to protect the public. A bill a House committee passed on Monday would put the attorney general in charge of doing that.
"I don't want fingers pointed anymore," Howes said Monday after the House Civil Law Committee narrowly passed his bill by voice vote.
The bill has more committee stops before it hits the full House. Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, authored the Senate version.
Attorney General Mike Hatch and his top staff have blamed Gov. Tim Pawlenty's administration for releasing Rodriguez instead of indefinitely committing him to a state hospital when his prison term ended in May 2003. Instead, he stands charged with the kidnapping and the death of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin later in 2003.
Pawlenty frequently has said the decision not to seek Rodriguez's commitment came during the administration of Gov. Jesse Ventura.
Howes said he wants it clear that the "state's top lawyer" is in a position to decide whether to seek a commitment. The bill requires the Corrections Department to work with the attorney general on the decision.
Kris Eiden, chief deputy attorney general, complained that the bill would require a bigger staff in her office. Four attorneys and four assistants deal with sex offender commitments in the 80 counties her office handles (the seven largest counties handle their own commitment proceedings). Eiden said the staff would have to double, although Howes doubts that many would be needed.
Howes said he will have estimates of the additional cost by his next committee hearing.
Eiden also had concerns about putting lawyers in charge of deciding whether someone should be committed. She said mental health and corrections experts would be better choices.
County attorneys object to the Howes bill because it could remove some of their authority, although Howes said county attorneys still could pursue commitments even if the attorney general did not.
State law requires the Corrections Department to examine every sex offender a year before he is released to determine if he would be a threat to society when released. If he is deemed to be a threat, the department is to recommend to the county attorney who handled the original case that he be indefinitely hospitalized.
A judge makes the final determination.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Don Davis at (651) 290-0707