ST. PAUL, Minn. - A state legislative committee passed an omnibus bill that includes reforms in the way Minnesota punishes sexual predators.
The action comes in the wake of a KARE 11 investigation that revealed loopholes that allowed hundreds of child sexual predators to slide under the radar, leaving parents in the dark about the danger they may pose.
One of the provisions calls for increased transparency for plea deals known as Stays of Adjudication. They allow defendants to plead guilty to a felony, but have charges dropped if they compete probation.
Under the present system, that keeps the criminal charges mostly secret because Minnesota’s online court database does not allow the public to search the names of people charged with a crime unless they have been convicted.
Making those cases public on the court website appeared to have largely bi-partisan support.
“It should be public and that’s an easy fix to do,” said Rep. Debra Hilstrom (DFL-Dist 40B), the top Democrat on the House Public Safety Committee.
“I believe that public transparency is very, very important and nothing should be a secret,” she added. “Especially not when someone has admitted facts in a court of law, that should be public information.”
Last month, Governor Dayton also called for more transparency.
Rep. Matt Grossell (R-Dist 2A) introduced legislation to do away with Stays of Adjudication altogether. He also proposed doing away with Stays of Imposition, which reduce felonies to misdemeanors after a probationary period.
“To give a stay of adjudication, which is not a conviction; to give a stay of imposition, which would drop it (the sentence) to a misdemeanor, I don’t think that is right,” said Grossell.
Those measures are also included in the omnibus bill approved by the committee, but still face opposition.
“I have the concern with the language as it is right now, that it will actually result in fewer people being held accountable,” said Rep. Dave Pinto (DFL-Dist 64B).
Pinto, a prosecutor himself, argued that plea deals are needed in some cases. Doing away with a county attorney’s ability to offer them could result in more people getting away with nothing on their record at all, he said.
Rep. Hilstrom, also a prosecutor, warned against approving the current language in the bill, expressing concern about cases with reluctant witnesses and victims.
“If you don’t have tools to negotiate those cases, sometimes you end up with the wrong result,” Hilstrom said.
Other portions of the omnibus bill that moved forward Tuesday would increase penalties for child pornography and order the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission to toughen recommended sentences for sex crimes.
The legislation is now being sent to the House Ways and Means Committee.