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Governor's plan - a solution in search of a problem?

Governor Tim Pawlenty's new plan for longer sentences for sex offenders might just be a solution in search of a problem.

At least that's what Douglas County Attorney Chris Karpan believes.

Four years ago, Gary Reynolds was charged in Douglas County District Court on a first-degree criminal sexual conduct charge. He was sentenced to 360 months in prison.

"This is the same crime under which Governor Pawlenty's new guidelines would call for a 244-month sentence," said Karpan Wednesday afternoon. "The fact is, the tools for prosecutors to obtain extremely severe sentences when the behavior calls for it are already in place and are used relatively frequently if the situation warrants."

Karpan also noted that if prosecutors don't get what they would consider to be a long enough sentence to protect the public, they can fall back on the civil commitment laws for those who remain dangerous despite the prison's best attempts at treating them.

"Those of us who are in the trenches could point out some areas, however, in the sentencing guidelines that could use a facelift," said Karpan.

For example, he said that the presumptive sentence for a second-degree criminal sexual conduct conviction, where the behavior can be strikingly similar to a first-degree charge, is a year in jail, followed by probation.

Karpan believes that a very small difference in the way the crime is committed can take a defendant from less than one year in county jail to 24 years in prison.

In his opinion, government should spend some energy beefing up the sentences for the second-degree crimes because those crimes can be just as devastating to the victim as a first-degree crime.

In the last 20 years, the way sex offenders have been treated has drastically changed, noted Karpan.

According to his research, in 1988, someone convicted of first-degree sexual conduct received 43 months in prison. There were no registration requirements and no civil commitment at that time - no matter how dangerous the offenders were when they got out.

In 1989, the presumptive sentenced doubled to 86 months and in 1992, the registering of predatory offenders began.

Ten years ago, in 2000, the presumptive sentence jumped again; this time to 144 months. Also, by this time, civil commitments were being used frequently.

Four years ago, in 2006, the guidelines commission, Karpan said, actually widened the court's discretion to sentence an offender to up to 173 months without a departure. However, as illustrated by Reynold's case, or in other particularly egregious cases, said Karpan, it is possible to get the 30-year statutory maximum.

"We've still got some work to do, but we've come a long way," he said.

Douglas County currently has eight men who have been civilly committed and are being house in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in Moose Lake.

"These offenders served out their assigned prison time, but were simply too dangerous to release," said Karpan.