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Officials prep legislation to stiffen child abuse laws

A one-word change could mean harsher penalties for child abusers and offenders in Minnesota.

County Attorney Kristen Nelsen said Friday her office is working with Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, to introduce legislation changing wording in the false imprisonment statute to lower the threshold for charging felonies.

Talk of drafting legislation for harsher punishment was spurred by last year’s sentencing of Dexter couple, Brian and Charity Miller, who chained their now 6-year-old son to his crib and withheld food and bathroom access from him and his 8-year-old brother.

The Millers completed a one-year jail sentence last month after being convicted of a gross misdemeanor, not a felony, which would be the charge if the new legislation passed.

“In the case of the chained children, we would have been able to have charged a felony where we couldn’t have before,” Nelsen said Friday.

At the Millers’ sentencing hearing July 22, 2011, Assistant Mower County Attorney Christa Van Gundy said in her closing statement that the Millers should have been charged with felonies. However, Minnesota statute does not allow a felony charge based on the nature of the Millers’ crimes because “substantial bodily harm” did not occur.

“There is a gaping hole in the statute,” Van Gundy said in court July 22. “Had an emergency occurred, (the chained boy) could have sustained substantial bodily harm; the defendants wouldn’t have had to do anything further.”

Nelsen said the legislation they’re seeking would only change one word in part of the false imprisonment statute.

“We’re looking to change the last sentence, which says ‘substantial bodily harm,’” Nelsen said Friday. “We’re looking to change it to ‘demonstrable bodily harm,’ which is a lesser standard to be able to charge a felony.”

The legislation hasn’t been introduced yet, but Nelsen said it’s currently in the works and should be introduced soon.

—Amanda Lillie contributed to this report.