The bearer of bad news

A profile of Jon Hinchliff, who tells neighborhoods when a sex offender has moved in

Most Minneapolis residents aren’t thrilled at the prospect of meeting Jon Hinchliff. Hinchliff is the Minneapolis Police Department’s Sex Offender Notification Coordinator — one of three people in Minnesota whose job it is to tell residents that sex offenders are living in their neighborhood.

Hinchliff often walks into hornets’ nests, such as a June meeting in the CARAG neighborhood. Although the initial reception was hostile — one attendee said people acted like they wanted to kill the sex offender (who had moved onto a block with a daycare). Hinchliff says he empathizes with neighbors, remains calm and tries to teach them how the system works.

CARAG resident Diana Boegemann said Hinchliff made a meaningful connection with residents, garnering applause at the end of his presentation.

"People want to know why [a sex offender] lives in our neighborhood. He helped everyone understand," Boegemann said. "He had a way of helping people deal with it… He never acted like any question was stupid."

However, community meetings are only a small part of Hinchliff’s job, which also includes sex offender registration and investigations. Due to his investigative efforts this year alone, at least 33 registered sex offenders have been incarcerated for violating terms of their release.

Notification laws

In Minnesota, sex offender registration began in 1991. In 1997, the Community Notification Law and Sex Offender Registration Act mandated that sex offenders be ranked by their likelihood to reoffend. Level 3 represents the highest danger to the community and the highest likelihood to reoffend.

Hinchliff must notify residents of Level 3 offenders living within a three-block radius. About 50 times a year, he ventures into communities to conduct public meetings on an offender’s crimes and history. Hinchliff also notifies community organizations such as libraries, schools and daycares about Level 2 sex offenders.

Hinchliff said there are more than 14,000 registered sex offenders in Minnesota — 1,750 are Minneapolis residents, one-eighth of the state’s sex-offender population. Approximately 365 Minnesotans are Level 3 offenders; 50 live in Minneapolis, according to the state corrections department.

Hinchliff said the sex offender laws are slowly toughening in the wake of tragedies, recalling names of Katie Poirier and Dru Sjodin, women slain in suspected sex crimes. "It takes tragedy — a series of tragedies — to motivate people to make changes in law," said Hinchliff solemnly.

Working with sex offenders

Although he seems a seasoned pro, Hinchliff’s position is relatively new — the Minneapolis Police created it in 2001 — and growing in responsibility.

One recent Tuesday, Hinchliff was busy reviewing a new case and registering a newly released offender. The registration process is more than just paperwork; it involves taking photographs, DNA samples and fingerprints, and collecting data on place of residence and employment. Hinchliff says he registers about five offenders each day.

He also works with Intense Supervised Release agents, who work with offenders as aggressive parole officers before probation. Hinchliff also spends a lot of time responding to tips about released offenders and community worries created by their presence.

These tasks keep Hinchliff on the phone a lot, communicating with law enforcement agencies from around the country. Hinchliff also often finds himself in court testifying against registered sex offenders.

On this day, he said a released sex offender came in to register because he had moved Minneapolis from Tennessee — however, the offender had moved here last year — violating terms of release by not registering right away. Hinchliff said failing to properly register is what gets most offenders, like the Tennessee man, sent back to the pokey.

Police can reincarcerate offenders because they are subject to release terms even when back in the community.

All inmates in Minnesota serve two-thirds of their sentences behind bars and spend the last third on supervised release in the community. (Offenders who misbehave can be incarcerated longer.)

If they violate their release terms in the outside world, they can be sent back to jail for the balance of their sentence.

Hinchliff said he has little sympathy for sex offenders and is often upset by how often they reoffend. "The frustrating part of the job is a really lengthy case on a violent offender who’s been the beneficiary of expensive [treatment] programs designed by professionals at a great cost to taxpayers, and still ends up a violent offender over and over and over," Hinchliff said.

He said because of his work with offenders, he spends a lot of time thinking about the victims. "You get a feel for their victims, which can be young victims and young adults," Hinchliff said. "These [offenders] do a tremendous amount of damage to other people."

Many years of service

Hinchliff’s empathy for crime victims stems from his career as a Minneapolis Police officer from 1968 to 2001, including 10 years at Southwest’s 5th Precinct. (He retired to take his current position in the Sex Crimes Unit.)

His sturdy facade and vast knowledge of an offender’s route through the legal system hint at his professional history. He was a sex crimes detective but has also worked as an investigator, hostage negotiator and on an organized crime unit. In 1988, he co-founded a group for victims of the occult and their families, formerly called the Minnesota Awareness of Ritual Abuse Network.

He said because of his long law enforcement career, switching to his current job seemed natural — except for the increase in computer work, which took some getting used to.

When asked why he vied for the job telling people there were sex criminals in their midst, he said, "It was a case of wanting to be involved in the community in a helping way."

Empathy

Hinchliff, a Maple Grove resident, said because of his family — wife, 16-year-old son, and daughters who are 14 and 9 — he’s able to better relate to concerned residents. "I have Level 3s by me, too, and I have kids," he said.

Still, Hinchliff said he often feels "like a dart board" when he comes to talk to residents. "It’s like being the [proverbial] messenger. Very seldom does it affect me because I understand it. They might have kids and this is just something else that they have to be concerned about. It’s natural — normal."

At meetings, Hinchliff explains the sex offender release system and probation. He provides residents with a fact sheet about the offenders’ criminal histories, including detailed information about their previous offenses and their current living situations.

Hinchliff also tells people specifically what the offender is not allowed to do and where he is not allowed to go. He said community members are key in catching an offender breaking the terms of his release. In addition, Hinchliff answers residents’ questions.

Lyndale Neighborhood Association Community Organizer Kristine Danzinger said there’s a rental property in the neighborhood that consistently rents to sex offenders, so she’s seen many notification presentations.

She said residents are afraid and concerned, but Hinchliff helped calm fears by explaining the release process and case specifics. She said without the program, residents wouldn’t know who the offenders are. "It takes away that anonymous fear," Danzinger said.

That’s not to say meetings always go smoothly. Some residents at the June CARAG meeting were upset, not just about their new neighbor, but about a flyering snafu that missed notifying some homes.

Hinchliff said he’s working with the company hired to flyer and arranged a second meeting so more people could attend. In addition, he said he’s working with daycare associations to better streamline communication about new offenders’ presence to Minneapolis daycares.

Despite the problems, CARAG’s Boegemann said, for her and many others, the June community meeting was a good chance to learn. "He talked about the laws, ranking levels, warning signs," she said. "It was really a teaching moment."