Minnesota struggles with sex offender reintegration
ST. PETER, Minn. -- Nobody wants sex offenders in their neighborhood.That's the difficulty facing the state, which expects additional court-ordered placements of clients housed at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in St. Peter, 13 miles north of...
ST. PETER, Minn. - Nobody wants sex offenders in their neighborhood.
That’s the difficulty facing the state, which expects additional court-ordered placements of clients housed at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in St. Peter, 13 miles north of Mankato. To date, six have been provisionally discharged. Another 725 remain in treatment at St. Peter and Moose Lake.
Of those 725, 82 are nearing release.
The Minnesota Department of Human Service’s recent efforts to reintegrate sex offenders discharged from its secure MSOP facility briefly included a renovation of a Le Sueur County property to house up to six high-risk sex offenders who have progressed in treatment. But an Oct. 31 purchase agreement was terminated after nearby residents launched an aggressive plan that includes a proposed ordinance that will severely limit where sex offenders can live in Le Sueur County.
DHS Commissioner Emily Johnson Piper said efforts in September to bring together local law enforcement and government officials about plans to renovate the four-plex, located on Highway 99 just east of St. Peter, “backfired on us.”
In a recent interview, Johnson Piper said her department is “playing defense constantly” with the emotional and complex issue, and the growing number of restrictive residency ordinances popping up throughout the state.
“We tried to do outreach ahead of time in Kasota but it backfired on us,” Johnson Piper said. “We want to be transparent about what we’re doing.”
But the commissioner, who oversees the state’s largest agency and an $18 billion annual budget, noted DHS efforts to find solutions to court-ordered placements of civilly committed sex offenders is growing more difficult because communities are fighting such proposals.
“It’s very frustrating for me because I don’t know what the magic solution is,” said Johnson Piper.
Bonding bill failure
Compounding the difficulties facing Johnson Piper and DHS is the Legislature’s failure to pass a bonding bill that included $12 million for two 20-unit facilities. Those MSOP projects would have provided extended services for discharged sex offenders who also suffer from physical and mental needs, more of an assisted living type facility, Johnson Piper said.
Without larger facilities to house discharged sex offenders, DHS must find smaller, community-based options. And, as in Kasota Township, residents react strongly against such placements.
DHS utilized a similar approach in Dayton, a northern Hennepin County suburb. There, three sex offenders are expected to be placed in an adult group home. And in this case, city officials claim they were “caught off guard,” according to an Oct. 20 KSTP-TV news story.
Johnson Piper voiced mixed emotions with placements in neighborhood which don’t have the resources or organizational structure to keep sex offenders out of their communities. She believes it’s unfair to continue to concentrate discharged sex offenders in metropolitan neighborhoods because they’ve not passed restrictive residency ordinances.
“I grew up in a poor area of Minneapolis, which had the highest concentration of sex offenders in the state,” said Johnson Piper.
The irony is that repeat replacements draw less public outcry, she added.
Taylors Falls, a Chisago County city of 976 people, was the first Minnesota community to implement a sex offender residency restriction ordinance in February 2006. Since that time, another 33 in the state have followed suit, including four communities in Le Sueur County: Cleveland, Elysian, Kilkenny and Le Center.
Le Sueur County officials are considering a countywide ordinance and scheduled a Nov. 1 public hearing.
The ordinance drive was spearheaded in large part by Kasota Township resident Jennifer Letts and drafted by attorney Margaret Dalton of the Minneapolis-based Stoel Rives law firm. Letts first appeared, unannounced, to commissioners at their Sept. 27 meeting, then brought Dalton, and a 62-page document and ordinance to the county board Oct. 4 for consideration.
If passed, it would be the first countywide ordinance in Minnesota.
Letts, who along with husband John, live adjacent to the Kasota Township property once considered by DHS officials to house clients provisionally discharged from MSOP. The four-plex is owned by Gene Lewis, of Le Center. Lewis had signed a purchase agreement with Ron Carlsen of Rochester, who leases other properties to DHS.
Both Lewis as seller and Carlsen as prospective buyer, along with Mankato real estate agent Sherry Dolan, were bombarded with calls, even threats. All three claimed they weren’t aware of the state’s plans to house discharged sex offenders.
Johnson Piper said she some of threats were “scary stuff,” including a threat to one of the individual’s children.
“I was appalled by it,” she said.
Letts said she encouraged neighbors and those opposed to the MSOP plan in Kasota Township to call, but was unaware of any threats. At two presentations to the Le Sueur County Board, Letts acknowledged the state’s difficulty in placing discharged sex offenders.
“I understand their situation fully,” Letts said.
But she stressed the state’s lack of planning for safe, adequate housing is forcing neighborhoods like hers in Kasota Township, as well as in Dayton, to force public criticism and implement residency restriction ordinances.
“We are not proposing a blanket (sex offender) restriction ordinance,” Letts told commissioners at their Oct. 4 meeting.
The proposed ordinance targets “Level 3 predatory offenders” deemed by the court as highly likely to reoffend. But there are exceptions, such as if the sex offender committed the offense as a minor or has been granted a risk level reduction,” or if placement is in a previously established personal or family residence.
Letts said the Le Sueur County ordinance drive is motivated by three factors: protecting the health and safety of children from sex offenders, particularly those considered most likely to re-offend; that such an ordinance is not unconstitutional; and that other cities and governmental entities have already passed such ordinances.
And while the Kasota Township no longer appears to be an option for MSOP, as the purchase agreement between Lewis and Carlsen was voided, Letts continues to advocate for the ordinance and plans to attend the Nov. 1 public hearing.
“It is imperative that everyone attend the Nov. 1 meeting to help pass our proposed ordinance to restrict where Level 3 sex offenders can live,” Letts told supporters in an Oct. 21 email. “We need to protect our community.”
Obligated to support
Johnson Piper, who served as legal counsel to Gov. Mark Dayton’s office prior to moving to DHS, said these “work-arounds” with private contractors and property owners would not be nearly as common had legislators funded the bonding bill and $12 million for the two 20-unit facilities.
“The idea is that we would put out an RFP for communities to respond and say they want the facilities, to be the employer and (make the) investment,” she said.
But due to the 2016 legislative stalemate, Johnson Piper says DHS continues to work for other alternatives.
“The Legislature has an obligation to fund this program in a way that allows me to run this program in a constitutional manner,” said Johnson Piper. “The people of Minnesota have an obligation to support the department’s work in maintaining a program that’s constitutional.”
Johnson Piper notes she’s spent considerable time and energy defending the constitutionality of MSOP both as advisor to Gov. Dayton and now as DHS commissioner.
“The process is so fundamental for the safety of the public and the program’s success,” she stresses. “I’m really concerned about it. I’ve spent the last three years arguing about the constitutionality of this program.”
Before a high-risk (Level 3) sex offender is released, DHS creates a discharge plan and completes a risk assessment that includes multiple expert opinions. That strategy and “very thorough” assessment process is both critical for the client and the general public.
“We want to be thoughtful about where people are going and how they are going to be treated as they transition out of our program,” said Johnson Piper.
Restrictive residency ordinances can limit options for DHS in placing provisionally discharged clients, Johnson Piper said. And with the growing number of communities passing such ordinances, “it’s laying the foundation for a legal challenge,” she added.
Le Sueur County Attorney Brent Christian, while being cautious during comments at the Oct. 4 Board of Commissioners’ meeting, citing the need for additional research on the proposal.
“Overall, I see no problem with it. I don’t find it legally challenged at this point,” Christian told commissioners
No simple solution
When federal Judge Donovan Frank ruled June 15, 2015 that the current DHS program regarding MSOP clients was unconstitutional, the department was forced to find new strategies with the potential release of dozens of sex offenders.
“The overwhelming evidence at trial established that Minnesota’s civil commitment scheme is a punitive system that segregates and indefinitely detains a class of potentially dangerous individuals without (legal) safeguards,” Frank wrote in his initial 76-page order.
Frank again laid out plans for MSOP in an Oct. 29, 2015 order providing additional direction that DHS develop a system for the inevitable release of sex offenders deemed eligible for provisional discharge. The state has appealed that order.
“I am concerned about the acceleration of provisional discharges on public safety,” Johnson Piper said. “We are thoughtful about reintegration and it’s important in the long run.”
But the long run might come much quicker than Johnson Piper and DHS have planned. As the state’s Kasota Township plan and subsequent opposition revealed, there are no simple solutions to a mounting statewide issue: balancing the safety concerns of the public with the civil rights of an individual, even those labeled as sex offenders.
“We’re trying to figure out new strategies,” Johnson Piper said. “It’s probably not a one-size, fits-all (strategy), although that would be easiest. Right now, every community is unique.”
Johnson Piper said DHS can be more proactive and transparent in communications with communities and neighborhoods, possibly seeking more engagement with county boards and decision-makers who also have a stake in the issue. Letts said she wants transparency and the inclusion of community leaders and property owners impacted by court-ordered sex offender placement.
Johnson Piper said society must play a critical role, and the department’s efforts communicating DHS strategies and educating the general public are equally as important.
“We could be explaining how our program runs and that the clients will be treated when they come out of the program,” she noted. “Society doesn’t think about the people (in our program) until they have a direct impact on them and then it’s hard to have clarity in thinking about the bigger picture and the program.”
The DHS commissioner said that she doesn’t have any illusions that the efforts will be easy. With the current MSOP strategy is under court review and many communities fearing sex offender placements, Johnson Piper said her department will be both tested and crucial in future years, well beyond her tenure.
“My hope is that this program - at least how it is run - that the conversation can shift from the constitutional issue and challenges with how it was running in the past, to organizing (and) to do more outreach and be engaged in productive ways,” Johnson Piper said.