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Minnesota's most predatory sex offenders, repeatedly branded "the worst of the worst," would be kept behind bars indefinitely under a bill moving through the Legislature.

Members of the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee unanimously approved a bill Tuesday to keep those offenders in prison instead of diverting them to a costly and controversial state program that has civilly committed hundreds of offenders in state treatment centers.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, the bill's sponsor, said that asking Minnesotans what the state should do with sex offenders would produce three answers: "life without parole, castration or the death penalty."

"I don't mean to be sensationalistic," Cornish added, "but the public expects us to do something drastic."

Under the bill, which was sent to the House Judiciary Committee, convicted offenders would face open-ended prison sentences, known as "indeterminate," if members of a jury found that them to be predatory, meaning they lack control over sexual impulses and pose a danger to others.

Such offenders would have to serve at least twice the recommended sentence and could be released only if the corrections commissioner determined they were no longer a threat to society.

If the bill becomes law, it would mark a return to the system of indeterminate sentencing that was replaced several years ago with sentencing guidelines. The bill moved out of committee days after the state's Legislative Auditor concluded that the 17-year-old Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) is deeply flawed.

The audit found that more than 575 offenders now held in two state treatment centers receive inadequate therapy from underqualified staff members at excessive cost. About 55 other offenders have been temporarily housed in other correctional facilities.

The program's population has nearly quadrupled over the past decade, and Minnesota now confines more sex offenders per capita than any other state. Noting that the number of sex offenders is expected to double again in the next 10 years, Cornish said legislators "are facing a huge decision point right now. We're spending a heck of a lot on housing."

The bill was supported by Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek and Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.

Under the current system, convicted offenders not in the program who have served their sentences are "the criminals who moms and dads want to see locked up a long, long time," Stanek said.

More than 100 Level Three sex offenders live in Hennepin County, according to Stanek. More than 80 are repeat offenders and more than 60 are free from court supervision. "We know what damage and havoc they wreak on our streets," he said.

Bob von Sternberg • 651-222-0973