Dropping her teenage daughter off at school, Nicole McKinnon worries about things like bullying, boys acting inappropriately or homework getting done.
“I never thought I had to worry about keeping my kids safe from the people I trusted to educate them,” she told the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee Wednesday.
In March 2017 she found out Brandon Bjerknes, the school’s assistant principal, groomed her daughter by posing as a teenage boy online, befriended the 13-year-old and ultimately got her to send him nude pictures.
“We have been through hell in the past year,” McKinnon said.
Her daughter, well-liked by teachers and fellow students, had much success in school, including being voted class president and was on the school swim team.
“He was a grown man and (my daughter) was not the only victim,” McKinnon said, noting authorities said 55 children were victimized.
Once the federal government took over the case, Bjerknes, 35, was sentenced to 25 years in prison plus lifetime supervision and must register as a sex offender.
Until tougher federal charges were filed, McKinnon said Bjerknes, a first-time offender, was looking at “a slap on the wrist” by state courts with a presumptive stayed sentence including no jail time or sex offender registration.
“The benefits given to first-time offenders are huge, and he had confessed to preying on children for his own sexual satisfaction for at least three years,” McKinnon said. “… Does he really deserve a break because he was smart enough to figure out how to carry on this disgusting scheme for a really long time without being caught?”
The committee held over an amended HF2904, a bill that contains nearly a dozen get-tougher-on-child-pornography provisions, including a guarantee that someone found guilty of distributing or possessing child pornography would spend time behind bars.
“If they’re hooked up on a child pornography charge they have to be threatened with federal charges before there’s cooperation or before there’s really any prison time,” said Rep. Matt Grossell (R-Clearbrook), the bill sponsor.
There is no Senate companion.
Current law does not require jail time for distribution and possession of child pornography. The proposed change calls for a mandatory minimum six-month jail sentence for first-time offenders with a minimum 12-month sentence for predatory and repeat offenders.
“This is about community justice … and making sure the Sentencing Guidelines Commission and judges are holding offenders responsible for at least six months,” said Theresa Paulson, an attorney at Civil Society, a nonprofit organization that helps victims of sexual abuse.
BCA Superintendent Drew Evans said the number of suspected child pornography or online exploitation of children tips continues to rise, with 2,148 received in 2017.
“When an image is shared and somebody uses that for sexual gratification, that child who was victimized and then recorded and then disseminated is re-victimized every single time that image is viewed,” he said.
Ryan Else, legislative chair of the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, expressed concern about removing court discretion.
“A mandatory minimum jail sentence takes away discretion from judges that get to see these cases, get to know who the offender is, and can make a decision based on the circumstances of the offense,” he said.
Other proposed changes include:
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