The consequences of zoning sex offenders

Dean's shoes
"Dean," a sex offender who has gone through the program at Alpha House in Minneapolis, talks about his experiences trying to re-enter society.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Taylors Falls has a population of about 1,000. In February it became the first city in Minnesota to restrict sex offenders from living near all places children congregate, including bus stops.

Mayor Mike Buchite says his restriction isn't a means of handling dangerous sex offenders, but he doesn't see the state offering alternatives.

"I'm a big believer of in the meantime, I've got to have the protection." he says. "Because If I save only one child it's well worth it."

Mike Buchite
Taylors Falls Mayor Mike Buchite says the city ordinance restricting where sex offenders can stay gives him a tool to protect local children.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Buchite is proud of the number of communities that have contacted him about the ordinance, over a dozen.

"Maybe the State of Minnesota will say, 'We're seeing a domino effect,'" he says. "And maybe this ripples up to the Capitol to the point where they say, it's time to do something about this."

Buchite hopes that happens before every city in Minnesota takes up the ordinance. He says no one has called him to say this is a bad idea. But he also says he hasn't talked to law enforcement officials in Iowa.

It was the first state to pass laws limiting where sex offenders can live. Linn County, Iowa, Sheriff Don Zeller is no fan of the law.

"It's been a total nightmare for law enforcement," Zeller says.

The law prevents anyone convicted of a sex crime, including indecent exposure, from living 2,000 feet from a school, daycare, or park. Some towns passed local ordinances to include bus stops and libraries.

"Sex offenders didn't get beamed down in some version of Star Trek. You should meet my mom and dad and my family. Never in a million years would anyone think that out of that environment would be born a sex offender."

Zeller says his county had 435 offenders registered last year. When the law first went into effect in September, 114 people in the county moved. Seventy-four people were charged with violating the ordinance. Some just disappeared.

"We went from knowing where about 90 percent of them were. We're lucky if we know where 50 to 55 percent of them are now," Zeller says. "Because what the law did is it created an atmosphere that these individuals can't find a place to live. So what that causes them to do is come in and lie about where they're at or maybe they just don't come in at all."

Sheriff Zeller says he knows of one man who finished parole for statutory rape, got married and had two children. Last fall the man took his daughter out of kindergarten and moved so the family could comply with the law.

Zeller says in December temperatures were below zero, and his department had to deal with another offender.

"He didn't have a job. He didn't have any family that lived here. He had no place to live," he explains. "Even though it wasn't responsibility of my staff, my staff tried to get him into a shelter. We couldn't get him into a shelter because all of the shelters were in the 2,000 foot barrier of a school or daycare."

Housing is so tight for sex offenders, Zeller says, he knows of a motel where 26 are now sharing rooms.

His staff has had to spend more time tracking offenders. They've had to map and post restricted areas without additional funding. Zeller says the law destroys hope for people wanting to make positive change in their lives.

Rick Weinberger agrees. He's the clinical director at Alpha Human Services in Minneapolis. A sign on the corkboard above his desk says no one is so wicked they can't be redeemed. Alpha House is the only non-custodial residential treatment center for adult male sex offenders in the five-state area.

"There's a lot of therapy I mean they're doing therapy eight hours a day, five days a week for 13 to 18 months," Weinberger says.

Residents also go through a series of tests.The follow-up outpatient treatment can take years. The center has been open since the 1970s. A recidivism study showed that over 20 years only 11 percent of the men who completed the Alpha House program successfully committed another sex offense.

Alpha House bulletin board
A sign on the Bulletin board in Rick Weinberger's office
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

That's similar to Minnesota Department of Correction statistics. They indicate only three percent of Level One offenders, that's the group of people least likely to re-offend in the state's eyes, committed another sex crime within six years of release. The people considered most likely to re-offend, Level Threes did so about 10 percent of the time over six years.

Weinberger says sex offenders are often as damaged as their victims. He also says most never re-offend. Ninety percent of sex crimes are committed by first-time offenders.

"You know we teach our kids to stay away from strangers, don't talk to strangers," Weinberger says. "But statistically 10 percent of the sex crimes are committed by strangers. Ninety percent are committed by people we know. So we should teach them just the opposite. Don't talk to anybody you know."

One of Weinberger's clients is a guy we'll call Dean. Instead going to prison, Dean went through the Alpha program twice. It took him six years.

"I committed my offense in 1990. Criminal Sexual Conduct in the First Degree," Dean says. "I raped a 15 year old member of my family," he says.

Dean says the program rubbed his face in every awful thing he'd done or thought. He says it also taught him that every behavior is a choice. And he could learn to think differently. He now runs his own business and is married.

"Sex offenders didn't get beamed down in some version of Star Trek," he says. "You should meet my mom and dad and my family. Never in a million years would anyone think that out of that environment would be born a sex offender."

Dean acknowledges that he can't be objective about restrictions on where sex offenders live. Still, he says it would ruin his life. He says he could never be more than his crime.

But what about his victim? Dean says the best thing he can do for her is be an honorable person today. By court order he hasn't had any contact with her. So he doesn't know how she's dealt with what happened, or what's she has faced as a result. He does acknowledge that he's taken a lot away from her.

"And I'm mindful of that," he says. "I haven't committed an offense again. There is a chance in all of us, that re-offense would take place. But I don't think that she perhaps would get along in life any better as a result of me being restricted to where I can live or any of those other things."

Rick Weinberger
Rick Weinberger is clinical director at Alpha Human Services in Minneapolis, a residential treatment program for sex offenders.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

The importance of helping sex offenders move on with their lives is key, says John La Fond. He's a reitred Constitutional law professor at the University of Missouri and the author of "Preventing Sexual Violence: How Society Should Cope with Sex Offenders."

"There's no evidence that indicates that where sex offenders live have anything to do with where they commit sex crimes. There is evidence, unfortunately, that these laws make it more difficult for sex offenders to re-establish safe and successful lives in the community, reunite with their families and generally become law abiding citizens," La Fond explains.

And he says they could even hurt the victims.

"Harsh regulatory measures imposed on sex offenders will certainly make it less likely that sex offenders will participate in plea bargaining and will create incentives for them to go to trial," he says.

That means putting the abused on the stand. If an offender wins the case, he won't participate in any treatment.

Minnesota's sex offender policy coordinator Eric Lipman says he understands the desire to restrict sex offenders' movement. But he believes the Department of Corrections is doing a lot to monitor sex offenders. It already limits where probationary offenders can live and with whom they can interact.

"Our question is, more broadly, you know have you made the public safety situation any better? And I think it's a fair, non-judgmental question," Lipman says.

He says the state can now do a risk evaluation of any offender who moves to Minnesota from another state. And he says Minnesota offenders who are considered sexual predators are kept in prison for an indeterminate amount of time. His fear is that like Iowa, offenders will go underground.