If only Minnesota had passed a sex offender bill sooner

The following article originally appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on July 11, 2005.

Back in 2004, Rep. Steve Smith, R-Mound, and Sen. Leo Foley, DFL-Coon Rapids, were the chief authors of legislation aimed at deterring repeat sex offenders.

Bipartisan legislators and Gov. Tim Pawlenty, motivated by the tragedy of Dru Sjodin, worked valiantly to construct and pass a meaningful bill.

But in what was known as the do-nothing session of 2004 (not to be confused with the do-nothing session of 2005), legislators adjourned without passing a sex offender bill.

To their credit, they did pass such a bill this year. But what was the cost of procrastination?

Let’s play “What if.” What if the 2004 Legislature had done the right thing and passed a comprehensive sex offender bill? Such a bill would have taken effect on July 1, 2004.

That date is significant because just two days later, on July 3, 2004, Joseph Duncan allegedly approached two boys at a school playground in Detroit Lakes with a video camera, pulled down the 6-year-old’s pants, and touched him inappropriately.

By the terms of the law that should have passed, and which would have taken effect only a few days earlier, perhaps the judge would have been more attentive to the arrest of a sex offender. You see, Duncan had served 14 years in prison for raping a 14-year-old boy at gunpoint in 1980, when he was only 16.

As it turns out, Duncan was not even charged in the Detroit Lakes case until March 2005, and Becker County District Judge Thomas Schroeder set his bail at a mere $15,000 in April. It is reported that the judge wasn’t sure if he knew at the time that Duncan was classified as a Level 3 sex offender, although the county attorney claims that the judge, indeed, had this information.

You know the rest of the story: On May 16, three members of an Idaho family were murdered and the two younger children, Dylan and Shasta, disappeared. An alert Denny’s waitress spotted Shasta Groene with Duncan on July 2, and he was arrested.

What if the 2004 Legislature had passed stiffer penalties for repeat sex offenders? Would the judge have been more attentive to the Detroit Lakes charges? Could Duncan have been stopped after this incident?

But it isn’t just state-level procrastination that can be blamed for preventing a safer world for our children.

At the federal level, a bill to create a comprehensive national sex-offender registry was introduced by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

Currently, all states are required to register sex offenders, but a weakness is that these registries are state-specific. There are no consistent reporting requirements. And only 48 states have their data online. The fact that there is no central database that crosses state lines would have been remedied with Dorgan’s bill.

Although the law has broad bipartisan support and passed the U.S. Senate in 2004, it was held up in a House Judiciary subcommittee by the ranking Democrat, Bobby Scott of Virginia. He and some colleagues objected to the bill because of what they saw as civil liberties concerns.

I am not concerned about the civil liberties of sexual predators. How can we forget the sickening reality of the recent cases of Jessica Lunsford, 9; Jetseta Gage, 10, and Sarah Michelle Lunde, 13, all of whom were sexually molested and murdered by repeat sexual offenders? How little Shasta survived is anyone’s guess.

This May, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales ordered his agency to establish a national sex-offender registry and have it online by July. Although a good first step, states cannot be ordered to be a part of this registry.

Sen. Dorgan and Rep. Paul Gillmor, R-Ohio, have reintroduced Dorgan’s earlier bill, which would standardize information about convicted sex offenders to include their name, address, photo and more. States that choose not to participate in this national online registry would stand to lose up to 25 percent of their federal crime-fighting allocations.

The state legislative stalemates of last year and this have irritated many, but lost in the finger-pointing is the fact that real people have fallen victim to our do-nothing legislative sessions.

Recall the famous words attributed last year to Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, who continues his obstructionist ways this year: “We don’t need anything.”

Well, the people of Minnesota did need something — we needed a law that would deter sexual predators from terrorizing our children. Last year, we didn’t get one.

There are now faces that can be put to the consequences of the political logjam known as the Minnesota Legislature. It is time to stop the political gamesmanship. Enough is enough.