City response to sex offenders could set stage in Minnesota

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 26, 2006

Editor’s note: This the first of a seven-part series.

By Joseph Marks, staff writer

Albert Lea City Manager Victoria Simonsen plans to present names to the City Council for a committee to study drafting of an ordinance restricting certain registered sex offenders from living in close proximity to schools, child-care centers and parks in the city during their Monday meeting. If adopted, this will only be the second ordinance imposing such restrictions in the state of Minnesota and, perhaps, a reference point for legislators, lobbyists and citizens across the state as they continue to deal with a world that is very different from the one most of them grew up in.

The proposed ordinance likely will not restrict all registered sex offenders, said City Attorney Steve Schwab, but only those convicted of a sex crime against children. Unlike the only existing restriction zone ordinance in the state, passed a few months ago in Taylors Falls, Minn., Schwab said an Albert Lea ordinance will not be so restrictive that it will deny offenders the right to live in the city. He said this will help the ordinance withstand any constitutional challenges.

&8220;This is a passion for me because I’m a dad, I’m a council man and I’m charged with the protection of the community,&8221; said City Councilor George Marin, who is also a pastor at Grace Lutheran Church and will serve on the committee. &8220;As a pastor, I see this on a regular basis and the effects of child molestation and abuse are lifelong.&8221;

Members of the Albert Lea Police Department have maintained that an ordinance restricting where offenders can live is unlikely to reduce cases of abuse.

&8220;I just don’t know how that ordinance is going to accomplish anything,&8221; said detective Frank Kohl. &8220;I’ve said many times over, most offenders offend against someone they know, a stepchild, a girlfriend’s kid, nieces or cousins. What we see in this town are sex offenses against children perpetrated by someone they’re very familiar with. It’s someone in the household.&8221;

Offenders who do seek out children they aren’t related to usually do so on the Internet, according to Kohl, not in parks or school yards. He also expressed concern that an ordinance prohibiting sex offenders from living next to schools, parks or child-care centers would not prohibit them from walking or driving to those locations.

In the beginning

It all began with a Web site, www12.familywatchdog.us, which lists pictures, names and other identifying information about sexual and predatory offenders, organized by city and state, which community member John Cook presented to the Albert Lea City Council at its Jan. 23 meeting.

The Web site only tells a small portion of the story though. About 47 registered predatory offenders live in Albert Lea, said Bill Donnay, director of the Risk Assessment and Community Notification Unit of the Minnesota Department of Corrections. Only five names appear on the Web site, all offenders who moved to Albert Lea from Iowa. Unlike Iowa, which opted in 2004 to list pictures of all registered sex offenders on its registry Web site, Minnesota only releases information publicly about the top two levels of offenders who are judged most likely to reoffend.

Minnesota’s registry is called a predatory offender list and includes those convicted of certain

crimes that were not sexual in nature.

Anxiety about predatory offenders spread through the community when the Web site was revealed and across the pages of Albertlea.com, a message board devoted, in part, to city issues. Power 96 DJ Ron Hunter publicized the issue on his radio programs and a public information session was held Feb. 20 in the Albert Lea High School auditorium. About 50 community members attended, fewer than expected.

Not content to wait for the issue to be handled at the state level, Hunter and Ted Paulson, a local father, handed out petitions to bring the issue of restricting where certain offenders could live in the community to a local ballot referendum in November. They collected more than 900 signatures, according to Paulson, and the issue was brought back to the City Council March 13, when councilors voted unanimously to form an exploratory committee. Marin asked the committee to respond before school classes dismiss for summer.

If an ordinance is passed, there will be no need for a ballot referendum, Simonsen said.

South of the border

On July 1 of 2002, a law passed by the Iowa State Legislature took effect prohibiting anyone who had ever committed a sex offense against a minor from living within 2,000 feet of a school or child-care center.

The law drew fire from the Iowa Civil Liberties Union and neighboring states, which were concerned the law would push Iowa’s offenders over the border.

Soon after the law was passed, the ICLU

won a case filed on behalf of several Iowa registrants and an injunction was passed discontinuing the law, according to Gordon Miller, public service executive with the Iowa Department of Public Safety located in Des Moines. That injunction was overturned last year when the federal Eighth District Court of Appeals ruled the law was constitutional and the restrictions took effect again in September of 2005.

Since the law took effect again, twice as many registered offenders from the state are listed as &8220;whereabouts unknown,&8221; meaning they have not registered their current addresses with the state, Miller said.

While the law undoubtedly had a chilling effect on offenders’ willingness to report their whereabouts to the state, Miller said the increase may be due, in part, to more aggressive tracking of registrants which also began last year.

The number of Iowa sex offenders who continue to register but have moved to other states has also increased since the law went into effect, Miller said.

Rural areas of Iowa also disliked the law because it pushed offenders out of cities and into rural motels, apartments and other country dwellings, as described in a New York Times story dated March 15, 2006. Officers of the law were upset because a large portion of their work time was taken to enforce a law that

made it increasingly difficult to track offenders.

A story of two states

Minnesota classifies predatory offenders into one of three risk levels or leaves their risk level unassigned if they have not served prison time, said Albert Lea Police Chief Dwaine Winkels.

Police are required to notify all neighbors when a Level 3 offender moves into the area and are permitted to notify schools and other at-risk agencies when a Level 2 offender moves to the neighborhood. Minnesota police are barred from informing people when Level 1 and unassigned offenders move into the area.

As of Feb. 20,there were 61 offenders in Freeborn County. There were no Level 3 offenders in the county. Four Level 2 offenders and 10 Level 1 offenders lived in Freeborn County, Donnay said. (Of those, nine Level 1 offenders and one Level 2 offender lived in Albert Lea.)

The remainder of offenders were listed as &8220;unassigned.&8221;

Prior to 2004, Iowa officials organized registered sex offenders into three categories, with a low, moderate or high risk of reoffending based on nationally accepted risk assessment tools, Miller said. Despite requirements, Miller said most registered sex offenders in Iowa were never assigned risk levels because the department could never manage the large workload. Miller estimated only 10 percent of offenders in the state were ever registered.

In July of 2004, the Iowa State Legislature opted to discontinue performing risk assessments entirely, said Miller, and made the names and pictures of all registered offenders available on the Internet.

None of the five Iowa sex offenders who now live in Albert Lea were assigned a risk level, according to Iowa’s registry Web site. Winkels said he believes none of them would be assessed as Level 2 or 3 offenders in Minnesota.

In Minnesota, risk levels are assigned to sex offenders upon release from prison, said Liz McClung, communications director for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. No-risk assessment is assigned for offenders who do not serve time in a state-run prison.

Risk level assignments take into account the seriousness of the offense, prior offense history, response to treatment, psychological characteristics and future living arrangements, McClung said. Risk levels are assigned by a review committee composed of the prison warden, a law enforcement officer, a treatment professional, a case worker and a victim’s rights advocate.

The facts

Recidivism rates for sex offenders are extremely low compared to the criminal population at large, McClung said.

In 1997, 1998 and 1999, 5 percent of all sex offenders were arrested for another sex crime. The recidivism rate for criminals at large is around 33 percent, according to McClung.

A March 2002 study which followed 1,432 sex offenders at all levels of risk assessment found that 3 percent of Level 1 offenders, 4 percent of Level

2 offenders and 9 percent of Level 3 offenders were arrested again for a sex crime, McClung said.

About 10 percent of predatory offender crimes are committed by known offenders, according to Donnay, and the remainder are committed by offenders not yet listed on the registry.

Meanwhile in St. Paul

While some push locally for restriction zones others, including John Cook who first brought the issue of registered sex offenders to the public’s attention, continue to push for wider community notification. Cook said he has e-mailed several legislators, including DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson and Rep. Dan Dorman, R-Albert Lea, about expanding community notification to include Level 1 offenders and several offenders who are unassigned.

Several ideas regarding sex offender registration have floated around the Legislature this session, Dorman said, including expanding the public registry and electronic monitoring of registered offenders but, he said, no bills have reached the floor of the House yet.

Dorman said he was concerned an expanded registry would be expensive to keep up and may not include accurate information.

&8220;My understanding is that states that do this, their online registries are only about 75 percent accurate,&8221; he said. &8220;They don’t have the money to maintain the registry where it’s at. I want to make a good, sound public policy decision that will make us safer, not something based on fear or that will help us win the next election.&8221;

Cook said he wasn’t concerned about offenders no longer registering because he is counting on curious parents to search through the Web site and report offenders whose pictures are matched with the wrong address.

(Contact Joseph Marks at joseph.marks@albertleatribune.com or at 379-3435.)