At first, it seemed like a simple request: Several community leaders from around the state had traveled to St. Paul to ask lawmakers to give them more authority to restrict the placement of level three sex offenders — considered the highest risk to reoffend — away from places like parks, schools or churches.
In one example, Dale Powers, a city council member from Clear Lake, told members of the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Finance and Policy Committee about an effort last year to move a level three offender to a house in another town, Birchwood Village. The house was located near a popular park, so in community of about 870 people, 835 signed a petition to pass an ordinance restricting the move. But local officials were worried such a rule wouldn’t hold up to judicial scrutiny: under the law, only the state of Minnesota is given the power to place or move sex offenders around in communities.
“The city was powerless to do anything about it,” Powers said. “This is really a quality of life issue.”
But DFL Rep. Raymond Dehn imagined what such a law would mean to his own district in north Minneapolis, which has one of the highest concentrations of sex offenders in the state. “Minneapolis has a lot of parks, we could easily do a restriction within a certain distance of our parks, then 123 sex offenders would have to be located elsewhere in the state of Minnesota,” Dehn told testifiers. “I think you need to be really cautious about what you are doing here.”
On Tuesday, the House committee passed the bill giving more power to local governments in sex offender placement, and a similar proposal is being considered in the state Senate. Beyond the particulars, the hearing also offered a clear example of the struggles lawmakers face as they continue to grapple with the contentious matter of sex offender placement in Minnesota.
Courts scrutinizing laws
It’s not a new issue in St. Paul, but it is one that is gaining more urgency as the Minnesota Sex Offender Treatment Program (MSOP) — ruled unconstitutional last June — starts to move some of its more than 700 offenders from indefinite confinement into communities. After just two men were moved out into the community in the first 20 years of MSOP, more than a half dozen men have been provisionally released from the program over the last year and a half, and dozens more are being moved into the final phase of treatment.
For those being released from MSOP, the Department of Human Services develops a placement plan, while the Department of Corrections is charged with placing sex offenders who are released from prison but not civilly committed to MSOP. Department of Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy said there are currently 5,000 registered sex offenders at all levels in Minnesota, including 459 level three sex offenders living out in communities.
About 40 municipalities across the state have already passed some form of residency restrictions, from Hennepin County to small towns in the far-flung regions of the state. The ordinances vary by community, but generally they bar sex offenders from living or being within 500 to 2,000 feet of places like a schools, playgrounds, daycare centers and churches, punishable by a misdemeanor. Yet similar state and local restrictions are being challenged or struck down in courts for being too restrictive of where sex offenders can live.
“The solution, I believe, is that residency restrictions should be abolished,” said Roy, who was appointed to run the Department of Corrections by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. “It is an issue that most likely we will have to deal with, and if we don’t deal with it as the executive or the Legislature, I think we can expect the courts to weigh in on this one for sure.”
Restrictions and recidivism
Minnesota’s not the only state dealing with these questions. Last year, California loosened an eight-year-old statewide residency restriction for sex offenders after the state’s Supreme Court found them to be too strict and unconstitutional. Last month in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker went in the other direction, signing a bill that creates blanket regulations across the state barring violent sex offenders from living within 1,500 feet of any school, day care, youth center, church or public park.
Technically, the legislation proposed in Minnesota would allow local governments to regulate – but not prohibit – where sex offenders can live. But some argued drawing circles around certain parts of communities will eventually just eliminate entire cities and regions of the state. In Willmar this month, city councilors tabled a proposal to create 500-foot restrictions around schools, parks, licensed daycare facilities, churches and playgrounds within the city limits, after map of the city under the ban showed there would be almost no options left for placements. Local officials feared it wouldn’t hold up to legal scrutiny.
“One of the first communities to pass one of these was Mankato when I was on the city council, and it virtually eliminated every possible place [sex offenders] could live,” said Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato, who said he voted for the ban.
One result of the restrictive policies, Roy said, has been the increase in the number of homeless sex offenders in the state over the last decade. Today, there are 47 sex offenders considered “off supervision,” or homeless, Roy said. Another consequence of the restrictions: an increase the concentration of sex offenders in disadvantaged neighborhoods, along with an increase isolation from families, treatment and education.
Addressing those things are key to keeping former offenders from repeating their crimes, Roy said. “It’s a testy situation we all face, and intuitively we would like to believe that drawing circles around cities would decrease recidivism of sex offenders, but in actuality it does not,” he said.
National studies show level three sex offenders have a 5 to 7 percent chance of re-offending within the first three years of release. Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-Cottage Grove, said he’s more worried about sex offenders in communities that no one knows about at all.
“When I’m working the street, I know who these people are. I have a picture of them and I know where they live,” said Schoen, who is a police officer and a paramedic. “This bill is all about emotion, and politically we’ll all probably have to support it because that’s what we gotta do, but we’re opening up a can of worms here.”
Community or state responsibility?
Some legislators believe it should be the local communities who get to decide on what’s best for them, not the state. “We didn’t make these guys commit these crimes, so I have a hard time having any tears for someone we can’t find a place for,” said Rep. Tony Cornish, a Republican from Vernon Center who chairs the House public safety panel. “You gotta think about the mother who is walking her kid to the playground. They don’t really pay much attention to your statistics of recidivism.”
Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, the author of the bill in the House, said the state’s not doing a good enough job of placing sex offenders now. “We can wave state law around all we want, but at the end of the day, if it’s not going to stop a predator from doing the unthinkable to children, what good is the law?”
DFL Rep. Deb Hilstrom expressed frustration because local restrictions placed on certain Hennepin County zip codes, where there’s already a high concentration of sex offenders, pushed them into her community in Brooklyn Center, which shares a border with north Minneapolis. The offenders said they wanted to be placed in Minneapolis, she said.
“This all started because it was court ordered that one of the MSOP folks who was being released was going to come and live in my community,” she said.
But the big question remains: Where do they go?
Legislators have been changing sex offender laws since 2003, after a level three sex offender released from prison raped and murdered Minnesotan Dru Sjodin, who was away at college in North Dakota.
Dehn suggested one possible solution would be to require communities where a sex offender comes from to also take sex offenders back. Others agreed, but the bill still passed out of committee on a voice vote. Dehn was the only audible no vote.
“I think we really really need to be cautious,” Dehn said. “Ultimately our goal is public safety, and if this is really going to make the public less safe, I can’t support this.”