Lawmakers call for tighter security around St. Peter hospitalby Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio
A weekend escape from the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter has prompted calls at the state Capitol for tighter security for sex offenders. A convicted rapist remains at large after squeezing through a broken window Saturday night. Three other men who went with him were later caught. Two state lawmakers from St. Peter say the incident highlights that more work is needed to protect the public.
St. Paul, Minn. — The Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter currently has 180 patients in its sex offender program. These individuals have completed their prison time but remained locked up under civil commitments to receive treatment. Separate programs at the 580-acre facility house mentally ill individuals.
DFL Rep. Ruth Johnson of St. Peter says the recent escape of sex offenders has raised concerns among area residents.
"It is not unusual over the years that I've lived in St. Peter to hear about escapes from the hospital. Usually the persons who escape are caught relatively quickly after the escape. This has been a completely different situation," she said.
Johnson is particularly concerned that four patients were able to escape from a secure building. She says the incident requires a state response.
Officials with the state Department of Human Services, the agency that runs the St. Peter treatment facility, say the building where the escape took place recently passed a security review. Assistant Commissioner Wes Kooistra says a new review is underway to determine what went wrong.
"We're looking at how the window was compromised, how the bars were compromised, how that was affected by our protocols for room checks and window checks, etc. And we're also looking at the physical structure of the building and the surrounding grounds," accoding to Kooistra.
If the review shows a need for security improvements, Kooistra says the department will go to state lawmakers with an additional funding request. Legislation already moving through the House and Senate would increase staff and improve security at the St. Peter facility.
State lawmakers cracked down hard on sex offenders, and the convictions and commitments are now rising rapidly.
DFL Sen. John Hottinger of St. Peter says additional security measures are needed to meet the demand.
"There's very limited protection provided where these folks escaped from. And the metal bars, which had been bragged about, steel bars which were bragged about were unbreakable, and we found out they aren't," Hottinger said. "We need to look at the level of protection. Certainly as we have more and more people put into treatment for sex offenses, we have to find ways to protect the community and make sure those ways work. These aren't working."
Hottinger is also pushing to increase the penalty for patients who escape from a secure treatment facility. He says under current law, the escapees face a maximum three-year sentence for breaking a hospital window.
"If it's a three-year penalty for breaking the window, I think a five-year penalty would be a more appropriate penalty for the escape itself," Hottinger said.
Other lawmakers take an even tougher view. Republican Rep. Steve Smith of Mound, chairman of the House Public Safety Policy and Finance Committee, says he'd like to see sex offender programs moved from the Department of Human Services to the Department Corrections. "If I had my way, sex offenders would be in prison and not be in a treatment facility so we could keep a better eye ion them," says Smith, who added that he's willing to listen to department officials if they decide St. Peter needs more money for security improvements.
Sen. Hottinger says he expects Senate committee hearings in the next few weeks to discuss the matter.