MINNEAPOLIS – In the three years since Dru Sjodin's kidnapping, Minnesota and North Dakota have made major changes in the way they handle sexual predators, keeping more of them locked up longer and supervising them more closely after they get out of prison.
Both states adopted tougher sentencing. Minnesota commits many more sex offenders to security hospitals after their prison sentences run out and North Dakota expanded its sex offender treatment program.
The changes are partly a response to Minnesota's decision not to commit convicted sex offender Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. in 2003, six months before 22-year-old Sjodin was abducted in Grand Forks, N.D.
"It led to a sea change in thinking about how we sentence dangerous sex offenders," said Eric Lipman, the sex offender policy coordinator for Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Jury selection for Rodriguez' trial was beginning Thursday in federal court in Fargo, N.D., where he charged with kidnapping resulting in the death of the University of North Dakota student. Sjodin's body was found near Crookston, where Rodriguez had been living since finishing a 23-year prison term for attempted kidnapping and assault. He had previous convictions for aggravated and attempted rape.
Sjodin's father, Allan Sjodin, used the word "tension" to describe the feelings as the young woman's family and friends arrived at the courthouse Thursday morning. He declined further comment.
Federal prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty for Rodriguez if he is convicted.
North Dakota took a closer look at its entire range of programs dealing with sex offenders because of the Sjodin case, said Brian Weigel, a specialist in the state's Parole and Probation Division.
"That case put it in the forefront," he said. "The most horrific thing that could happen on this Earth — we are using it for something positive."
Minnesota officials had classified Rodriguez as a Level 3 sex offender — the type deemed most likely to strike again. But before his release in 2003 they decided against trying to commit him to a security hospital as a sexual predator, and because he had served his entire 23-year sentence he was under no restrictions when he left prison.
Stung by the criticism that followed Rodriguez' arrest in Sjodin's death, the Minnesota Department of Corrections began referring every case of Level 3 offenders approaching release to local prosecutors for decisions on whether to seek commitment. Corrections had previously referred only selected cases.
About 350 Level 3 offenders are now committed indefinitely to two security hospitals, up from about 190 in mid-2003. About 15 to 28 offenders were committed per year before Sjodin's kidnapping, but last year 58 were committed.
In theory, the people in Minnesota's program could complete treatment and get out, but as a practical matter nobody does. More than half of the people locked up refuse treatment.
"Given the political circumstances, I don't see that (release) happening in the near future," said Eric Janus, a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.
North Dakota had 22 people civilly committed from 1997 to about 2004. That's up to 46 or 47 now, said Duane Houdek, a spokesman for North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven, "and we know that's going to expand. We really broadened the net to look at lower levels of sex offenders than we had been doing."
Legislators in both states voted to impose life sentences for the most serious sex crimes, including life without chance of parole when murder is involved. Beginning Aug. 1 in Minnesota, sentences for all other sex crimes also will be longer, and inmates who don't do well in treatment will get extra prison time.
North Dakota created a special unit in its Parole and Probation Division.
"We're able to monitor better and assist them, and early on, when we see them in a relapse cycle, we're able to intervene, or we're able to intervene early and take them off the streets early," Weigel said.
Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, president of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, said that while the changes in sentencing are welcome, they aren't enough.
"I hope that when the headlines fade that we still have a commitment to supervision and treatment of those that will be released," she said. "We have to have all three — long sentences for the worst of the worst, treatment for those in our facilities, and supervision of those who are released."