Minn. squeezes counties for sexual predator costs

The spiraling cost of confining Minnesota's most dangerous sex offenders after prison is forcing state lawmakers to confront a once politically untouchable program. But they're doing so by sticking counties with a bigger bill.

For every sexual predator the courts send to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program after Aug. 1, counties must pay a quarter of the $120,000 annual cost, up from 10 percent. The move, under a new state budget that became law after last month's 20-day state government shutdown, is expected to save the state $2 million over the next two years and more in later years.

That might not sound like much in the context of a $70 million annual budget for more than 600 sex offenders. But the program has come under fresh scrutiny as the state's financial situation worsened.

With the program's population projected to more than double in the next decade, lawmakers are trying to make local officials choose cheaper ways to manage risky sex criminals. Prosecutors in the offender's home county decide whether to seek the court-ordered treatment, typically when an offender is close to finishing a prison term.

"There's a fair amount of politics in deciding they're going to send everybody away because they're not a very desirable population," said Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, who pushed for the higher county payments as the Minnesota House's lead Republican on social services spending.

"The idea was if they have to pay a little more out of their own pocket, maybe they'll be a little more careful about who they send."

Minnesota confines more sex offenders per capita than any other state that uses civil commitment for sexual predators. The state has never permanently released anyone from its $328-a-day treatment program, where the population mushroomed after a 2003 slaying by a convicted rapist released from a state prison.

County prosecutors said they don't plan to ease up on sex offender commitment cases.

"I'd hate to put a psychopath back out on the street and then justify how we did it because of monetary reasons," Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan said. "I'd probably have to go the other way and say, 'No, we're going to have to spend the money.'"

Ryan's county sits in a cluster of northwestern Minnesota counties where an auditor's report earlier this year found one of the highest rates of civil commitment for sex offenders. Most rural prosecutors tended to pursue the post-prison option more than prosecutors in the Twin Cities.

The report concluded that lower-risk sex offenders from some of the more aggressive counties ended up in the treatment program, even though they might have been released had they come from another county.

County attorneys have their own explanations for the variation. Ryan said his county has a high conviction rate for sex crimes and may be more likely to follow up with civil cases when offenders finish criminal sentences.

Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster, whose southeastern Minnesota county is part of a group with the highest rate of civil commitments, said sexual predators are tracked more closely there.

"In the smaller jurisdictions we know our people better, and we're more vigilant," Beaumaster said, adding that the new law won't lessen his vigilance.

If that holds true throughout Minnesota's 87 counties, it will fall to elected county officials to come up with money to pay the higher share of sex offender treatment.

Counties are already expected to enact property tax increases and service cuts to respond to new cuts to local aid and other programs in the state's latest budget, said Jeff Spartz, who heads the Association of Minnesota Counties. Counties will see their state aid reduced at least 10 percent over the next two years, with deeper reductions on the horizon.

Still, Spartz said he doesn't expect them to skimp on public safety.

"They will cannibalize other things to take care of this," Spartz said of the sex offender treatment costs. "These are all viewed as extremely high-risk, dangerous people."