The Free Press of Mankato, Aug. 13
Risk grows in sex offender program
In another reminder of Minnesota's flawed policy on sex offenders, a federal judge raised clear doubts about the constitutionality of the entire program even though he ruled to prohibit immediate release of two offenders.
Judge Donovan Frank ruled Monday that two sex offenders who are part of a class action suit would not be immediately released and the petition of their lawyers was denied.
But Frank's opinion was heavy with suggestions that the Minnesota program is unconstitutional and he moved to speed up the trial date of the class action suit brought on behalf of numerous offenders.
Some Minnesota legislators said this wouldn't happen -- that a federal judge would never want the release of sex offenders on his watch. But that assurance seems iffy at best now. Some legislators used that as a reason for not acting on real reform.
But at least one expert told the Star Tribune that the judge's ruling is more of a threat to the state than releasing the two offenders. The judge is viewing the entire system as one that would not pass constitutional muster.
Frank cited two reports in his ruling, one from a special panel appointed by the court to review the system and the other by the Legislative auditor's office. Frank said in his ruling that the task force has concluded that there is "broad consensus that the current system of civil commitment of sex offenders in Minnesota captures too many people and keeps too many of them too long," according to a report in the Star Tribune. In past rulings he has described the system as "broken."
Democrats and Republicans continue to argue about the policy at the Legislature, and Democrats put out a reform proposal in the past couple of years. It passed the Senate with Republican votes but didn't pass muster in the House where Democratic leaders did not want to pass it without bipartisan support. They argued passing their own reform would make them targets for unfair campaign rhetoric, and they're probably right.
Republican legislators say they have ideas on reform that majority Democrats don't seem to want to embrace. Others have pushed the idea of longer prison sentences for sex offenders, something that might also be challenged constitutionally.
But it's becoming more and more clear that Minnesota legislators will have to do something, and do it sooner than later, to prevent the wholesale rejection of the sex offender law's constitutionality.
Minneapolis Star Tribune, Aug. 13
Protecting Minnesota's rivers and streams
The algae bloom that temporarily turned the Ohio city of Toledo's drinking water into toxic green sludge this month was an unsettling reminder that cleaning up the nation's waterways remains a vital but unfinished job.
Thanks to the federal 1972 Clean Water Act, rivers no longer start on fire and the Great Lakes aren't at the tipping point of becoming the North American version of the Dead Sea. But as the phosphorus-induced Lake Erie algae bloom revealed, pollutants are still making their way downstream, with serious consequences for public health and aquatic life.
That's why a complex assignment recently completed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) merits public applause and support.
The state agency headed up the time-consuming task of determining an important new water quality standard for rivers and streams. Minnesota already has had phosphorus standards for lakes since 2008.
This summer, it adopted the new river standards for this common "nutrient," which is found in human and animal waste. It's a wonkish milestone but also a significant step forward when it comes to protecting Minnesota's treasured waterways.
Water quality standards in general "establish pollution limits that protect our water resources for benefits like water recreation, fish consumption and healthy plant communities," according to a Friends of the Mississippi River statement applauding the MPCA's work. "If the water body fails to meet the standards, the state can require pollution reduction from those contributing to the problem and help restore the waters to health."
The new standard's value is heightened by the growing calls to shift many municipal drinking water sources from groundwater to surface water — a move that's gained momentum as White Bear Lake's shriveling has been linked to heavy aquifer use by surrounding municipalities.
Phosphorus is called a nutrient because it's vital to plant growth, which is why it's long been a fertilizer component. Unfortunately, algae thrive on it. So when excess amounts are washed downstream — usually as the result of human activity and development — algae blooms like the one choking Toledo's drinking water intake can result.
According to the MPCA, high phosphorus levels are linked to agricultural runoff, wastewater treatment facilities, individual septic systems, urban construction and residential development. Managing and reducing phosphorus in waterways will require commitment from citizens, industry and local governments.
Strides already have been made in combating phosphorus in Minnesota, but the new standards provide a scientific foundation to strengthen and target water quality safeguards. Among the changes that may be needed: further reduction in phosphorus discharges from some sewage treatment plants.
Better management of agricultural runoff also needs to be weighed and spotlighted, particularly after an alarming Environmental Working Group report released this spring. The report from the nationally known advocacy group compiled aerial maps that showed that many streams running through southern Minnesota's cropland are missing legally required buffer strips of natural vegetation. These small areas between fields and streams can help control runoff and prevent contaminants from reaching waterways.
Tougher enforcement of these laws and other changes to reduce phosphorus discharge, particularly at sewage treatment plants, are likely to generate controversy because of the cost and anti-regulatory rhetoric that has dominated public policy debates in some political circles.
No one enjoys red tape or paying more for basic services. But perspective is needed. These changes are manageable and far preferable to toxic green gunk contaminating rivers and lakes.
The MPCA's new phosphorus standards build on good work done by the agency. Last year, its scientists released a gutsy report tracing nitrate water pollution back to the state's politically powerful agriculture industry. Thanks to the agency, Minnesota is better prepared than many states to protect its water resources. The challenge now is to continue this valuable work and act on it.
St. Cloud Times, Aug. 14
Parents, stop distracting your teen drivers
New research about distracted driving by teenagers provides some sobering news most parents probably won't want to admit.
First, they — yes, parents — are the No. 1 cellphone distraction for teen drivers. Second, most parents make lousy role models when it comes to ignoring distractions while driving.
The first finding is the most important and easiest to fix. Moms and dads, don't call your kids when you know they are driving.
Unfortunately, a study presented last week to the American Psychological Association showed parents aren't doing that. When 400 drivers ages 15-18 were asked who calls them the most when driving, 53 percent said their parents. That compares with 46 percent who reported talking to friends.
Again, moms and dads, don't call (or text!) your kids when they are behind the wheel. If you do call and your teen says they are driving, hang up! Why? Safety first, followed by adhering to the law!
As a report last year by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration showed, distracted driving is a leading cause of crashes among drivers of all ages. For teens specifically, 21 percent of fatal crashes involved cellphones.
It's also important to remember in Minnesota it is illegal for drivers younger than 18 to answer a cellphone while driving or in traffic.
Of course, main reasons this research found teens take calls while driving is their parents.
Among their reasons is their perception it's either OK to take calls from their parents or their parents will be mad if they do not answer. (In fact, some teen respondents noted parents keep calling back if they do not answer.)
Also, these teens, who came from 31 states, reiterated findings from previous research that showed parents are terrible role models.
Indeed, a growing body of research has proven this to be true. For example, a 2012 survey by the University of Michigan and Toyota found that parents who more frequently engage in distracted driving have teen drivers who engage in distracting behaviors more frequently than their peers who drive.
No wonder this latest study included comments from teen respondents along the lines of "everybody is doing it," including mom and dad making and taking calls and texts.
For the sake of their children's safety, parents need to do a better job on two fronts. First, don't call your kids if you know they are driving. Second, don't use your phone while driving. Failing on both fronts might just kill you and your kids.