No habla Espanol in city sex-offender notification program

The city tells residents when the most serious sex-offenders move into a neighborhood, but they don’t translate fliers for non-English speakers. One neighborhood is complaining.

The Minneapolis police expect to hold a record number of community meetings this year to let people know that a high-risk sex offender is moving in nearby. However, some residents may not know the meetings are taking place — the notification fliers are only printed in English.

At least one Southwest neighborhood is pressuring the city to translate offender information for Spanish-speaking and Somali-speaking residents.

Becky Olson, a Whittier Alliance board member, attended a June 20 meeting where the community learned of a Level 3 sex offender moving onto the 2600 block of Clinton Avenue.

"It was very low attendance," she said. "I think it was because the Hispanic population didn’t get notification in their language."

Olson said city officials have told her about the budget crunch and how all the departments are hurting. "I said, ‘You know what? The citizens of Whittier deserve to be told.’"

Whittier — bordered by Lake Street, Franklin Avenue, Lyndale Avenue and I-35W — has 15,247 residents, and more than 20 percent are Hispanic or Latino, according to the 2000 Census. (The census does not say how many Somalis live in a particular neighborhood.) The Alliance tries to translate its materials into Spanish and Somali, believing they are the two predominant non-English languages spoken in the neighborhood, said Jeff Langaard, executive director.

Juan Linares, an Alliance board member, said people should know who is coming to live in their neighborhood.

"If this person has been convicted of rape and assault, it should be known to every single person in this block, in this neighborhood, this city, regardless. Everyone is at risk," he said.

Budget under pressure

In 2002’s first six months, the police had held 31 community notification meetings and the department projects 60 by year’s end. The previous high was 45 meetings in 1999. The growth does not necessarily reflect more sexual offenders, but rather stricter 1997 laws that mandated better community notification.

While more meetings are being held, it is a tough time to request more money for translation services. Information about sex offenders is a small part of a long list of things the city could translate to improve basic city services to immigrants. With the city eying budget caps, the mayor and City Council will struggle to maintain existing services, let alone add new ones. More comprehensive notification is one small example of the tough choices that lie ahead.

Jon Hinchliff, the police department’s sexual offender notification coordinator, said providing information to Somali- or Spanish-speaking residents goes beyond translating a flyer.

The city would need to provide interpretors at the community meeting so those who attend can participate. Cost: $30 to $40 an hour per translator. By comparison, Hinchliff has a $100 budget for printing — and "we went over that a long time ago," he said.

The city would also need to staff phones with translators for people who call the flyer contact number.

"It can get to be an expensive matter," Hinchliff said.

At the same time, the police sex crimes unit is losing two of its nine investigators because of budget cuts, Hinchliff said.

City Councilmember Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward), who represents Whittier, said the cost shouldn’t prohibit the translation service.

"I don’t have a ready solution," he said. "I am going to need to talk to staff. I think we can find a way to do it. Talk to me in a month and see what I have done."

Adding up the cost

Level 3 is the most serious of the gradations the state uses to classify sex offenders. When a Level 3 sex offender is going to move into a new residence, Minneapolis police send out flyers to residents within three blocks in any direction, inviting them to a community meeting with a number of state, county and city law enforcement professionals. The flyer has a phone number to call for more information if they cannot attend.

City police have made efforts to reach out to the non-English speaking community. It hired a Somali Crime Prevention Specialist and by mid-August, will have a Spanish-speaker, said Sgt. Medaria Arradondo.

Translating written information is not always the answer, he said. As many as 75 percent of the Somali community cannot read Somali.

"That is why Somali cable television is important," Arradondo said. "And coffee shops are a big meeting place."

Notification: A brief history

Prior to 1997, the state registered sexual offenders, but did not categorize them by risk, Hinchliff said. In 1997, the state got more serious about sex offenders, creating a three-tiered system.

Level 1 offenders, the lowest risk, usually have one conviction, Hinchliff said. When they leave prison, notification goes to law enforcement agencies, and the victims and witnesses.

Level 2 offenders are at a moderate risk to re-offend, he said. They may have a couple of sex offense convictions and possibly convictions for violent crimes as well. In addition to the Level 1 notification, information goes to businesses and other establishments where the individual might show up.

Level 3 offenders typically have multiple convictions, have failed in treatment, have been disruptive in prison and have a pattern of violence, Hinchliff said.

At the recent Whittier meeting, people received a fact sheet on Michael Sean Worth Jr., 24, the Level 3 offender moving into the neighborhood. The sheet had his photo, conditions of release, probation office contact information and a description of the offenses.

"One offense occurred when he was a juvenile and the other when he was 19 years of age," the fact sheet said. "Both victims were acquaintances and the crimes involved penetration criminal sexual conduct. The age range for both victims was 8 and 13."

At any one time, roughly 50 to 55 Level 3 offenders live in Minneapolis, Hinchliff said. The Phillips and Jordan neighborhoods have the most, with the others evenly distributed around the city.

More Level 3 offenders will live in the community as more leave prison, Hinchliff said. If people with pre-1997 convictions offend again, they could get classified to level 3, again boosting numbers.

Each time sexual offenders move, the police hold a meeting.

"We have held two meetings for one individual within six months," Hinchliff said.