A bill that would have toughened punishments for sex crimes and increased transparency in the sentencing of admitted child molesters has met its legislative death – at least for now.
The sex crime sentencing reform bill was introduced in the wake of KARE 11’s investigation exposing a little-known legal loophole that allows hundreds of child sexual predators in Minnesota to slip under the radar, leaving parents in the dark about the danger they may pose.
Although the reform bill passed the Minnesota House of Representatives, it was blocked in the state Senate when leaders decided it needed more study.
Exposing secret sex offenders
In a series of reports beginning last November, KARE 11 revealed how some defendants accused of sexually abusing children were being allowed to plead guilty in open court, yet avoid criminal convictions.
“We didn’t know, we had no idea,” said the mother of a Ramsey County girl, 11, molested by a landlord who’d previously admitted molesting another child.
Eugene Robert Finch, 47, had been charged with Criminal Sexual Conduct in Carlton County in 2014. If convicted, he was facing three years in prison and placement on Minnesota’s sex offender registry.
But even though Finch entered a guilty plea, records show it was part of a deal with prosecutors, that ultimately allowed him to dodge an official conviction.
Under the plea deal, known as a "Stay of Adjudication," a judge puts the guilty plea on hold, places the defendant on probation, and agrees to dismiss the charges if probation is successfully completed. That keeps the admitted child predator off the state’s sex offender data base and even keeps the original charges from appearing on Minnesota’s public online court system.
Governor calls for reform
After viewing KARE 11’s reports, Governor Mark Dayton called for changes in the way Minnesota sentences sex offenders.
“The public deserves a right to know,” Governor Dayton told KARE 11. The governor explained he believes in second chances, and giving even sex offenders a chance to become law-abiding, responsible citizens.
However, he said that doesn’t mean their crimes should be shielded from the public.
“Innocent people need to know that there are people around them who have a history of sexual abuse, and we need to protect the public first and foremost,” Dayton said.
Some House Republicans also vowed to take action.
Rep. Matt Grossell (R-Dist 2A) introduced a bill which not only called for increased transparency by the court system, but also for doing away with Stays of Adjudication altogether.
Making those plea bargains public on the state court website in instances of child rape and sexual assault appeared to have largely bi-partisan support.
“It should be public and that’s an easy fix to do,” said Rep. Debra Hilstrom, the top Democrat on the House Public Safety Committee. Hilstrom is also a prosecutor in Anoka County.
But Rep. Grossell’s call for a total ban on Stays of Adjudication proved to be controversial. It was opposed by lobbyists for defense attorneys and the County Attorney’s Association who claimed it was a valuable tool in hard-to-prove cases.
Proposal to toughen child pornography sentences
Other portions of Rep. Grossell’s bill would have increased penalties for child pornography and ordered the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission to toughen recommended sentences for other sex crimes.
KARE 11’s analysis of state sentencing data determined that nearly 90 percent of those convicted of trafficking in child sexual exploitation materials never spend a single day in state prison.
After reviewing sentencing records, the National Association to Protect Children (PROTECT) wrote in a letter that “Minnesota’s sentencing for child exploitation material is, without a close second, the weakest in the nation.”
“If you look at the crimes on your books and the punishments on your books they look fairly reasonable,” said Grier Weeks of PROTECT. “But the way judges are sentencing, because of your sentencing guidelines, it makes Minnesota probably the weakest state we’ve ever seen nationally on child sexual abuse.”
Minnesota Senate delays action
Rep. Grossell’s bill passed through the House Public Safety Committee and was included in the Omnibus Public Safety bill. But it came to a screeching halt when the GOP-controlled Senate refused to take up the proposal this session.
“This bill is very complex,” said Sen. Warren Limmer (R-Dist 34), Chair of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee. “Due to the limitation of our time in the Senate, we did not have enough information on it,” he said.
Senate leaders decided that delaying action was safer than what some lawmakers called hasty action.
“It is not a question of not taking action,” said Sen. Limmer. “We want to do the job right; we need more time.”
“I’m just dumbfounded,” said Rep. Grossell of the delay. “Some things that should just be common sense, people don’t want to take hold of.”
California outlawed the use of Stays of Adjudication in child sex cases back in 2005, and PROTECT says it is time for Minnesota to do the same.
“The number one weapon of a sexual predator is camouflage,” said Weeks, “and the way Minnesota is giving people these stays of adjudication gives them camouflage. It wipes clean their record and that’s a very dangerous thing.”
Sen. Limmer pledged to take up the issue again in time for next year’s legislative session.
“This issue is not going away and you have my word that it’s going to be addressed,” Sen. Limmer told KARE 11. “We want to get it right!”
“They’re telling me next year, and I’m thinking to myself, next year we’re going to have more victims by then,” said Rep. Grossell.