Councilmembers to propose new housing restrictions on sex offenders
Two city councilmembers are preparing to propose restrictions on where sex offenders can live in Minneapolis, even though the proposed change is likely to trigger controversy and possibly a legal challenge.
Councilmembers Paul Ostrow and Gary Schiff are in the process of working out differences on how restrictive the law they'll propose to the Council will be, but both say they hope that residency constraints on offenders will ease public worries and disperse concentrations of offenders in the city. Not everyone is convinced that the politically appealing proposal from the two men with their eyes on higher office will actually prevent crime or be enforceable, however.
“The idea of a sex offender living directly across from a park or immediately adjacent to a school is something that people just don't have a comfort level with,” said Ostrow (1st Ward). “So I think that's an understandable concern that we can address.”
Ostrow, who will put the proposal in front of the Council, wants to restrict Level III offenders from living near schools, day care centers and parks, but he's not sure yet of the distance limits he wants to propose. Level III offenders are those determined by the Minnesota Department of Corrections to carry the highest risk of reoffending.
Ostrow said he's sure the restriction passed earlier this year in Taylors Falls, Minn., that virtually guaranteed that no sex offenders could legally reside in the small town of 1,000 would be unworkable here.
He said that while it “might be appealing” to try to prohibit Level III sex offenders from living anywhere in Minneapolis, there are “legal and practical considerations that we have to deal with” that would prevent the city from actually enacting such a law.
He said he also favors restrictions prohibiting sex offenders living within a quarter-mile of each other.
In September 2005, an Iowa law barring those convicted of sex crimes involving children from living within 2,000 feet of a school or day care center went into effect. Earlier this year, Taylors Falls became the first in Minnesota to pass similar restrictions.
Other states and cities around the country are pondering comparable laws as public outrage builds over crimes such as the murder of college student Dru Sjodin and the rape and killing of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford in Florida last year.
Schiff wants to prohibit Level III offenders who have molested children from living within 1,500 feet of a registered daycare center or elementary school, and those whose victim pool includes senior citizens from living within 1,500 feet of a nursing home.
“The purpose of the law is to keep sex offenders from their target population,” he said.
“They won't have as easy of an opportunity to offend if they're not as close to their target pool.”
Schiff said he isn't trying to run all sex offenders out of Minneapolis, or herd them all into chosen city neighborhoods.
“This is not about creating a district where everybody must move to, this is about creating borders between target populations and offenders whose risk assessments indicate a high risk of reoffense. The zip code I live in, 55407, has the highest concentration of sex offenders in the state of Minnesota. And that's what we're trying to avoid, any one concentration of sex offenders in any one community or any one zip code in Minnesota.”
Michael Thompson, a psychologist who does sex offender treatment, evaluations and risk assessments, says he gives the emerging Ostrow-Schiff proposal “zero” chance of succeeding.
“Residency restrictions are relatively ineffective,” he said.
“Offenders are smart. They're going to travel to do their thing. Most offenders are not going to go next door to commit their offenses. Most victims are acquainted with the people that offend against them. Long story short, what people should be worried about, really, is the offender who lives next door to them who knows their kid and has a relationship with their kid rather than the offender who they think is going to go to a school or daycare or playground and offend against a stranger.”
The Iowa law, he said, “in the circles I work in is [considered] an absolute, abject failure.”
He points to research by Lynn University Assistant Professor Jill Levenson suggesting that the residency restrictions can have negative effects on the offenders, which then ricochet onto the larger community. “Residence restrictions [can] lead to serious unintended collateral consequences for offenders, such as limiting their opportunities for employment, housing, education, treatment services and prosocial support systems. As a result, current social policies may contribute to dynamic risk factors for offenders in the community, ultimately becoming counter-productive,” she wrote in a report she did for the Civil Research Institute of Kingston, New Jersey.
According to a New York Times article in March of this year, the number of released sex offenders in Iowa who have failed to register has slightly more than doubled since last September. The article also quoted several law enforcement officials criticizing the law, which they say has pushed offenders out of Iowa's urban areas into rural counties and neighboring states.
“This is a hot-button election gimmick as far as I'm concerned,” Thompson said. “It's something that gets a lot of press and looks good on the surface.”
Jon Hinchliff, the Minneapolis Police Department's Sexual Offender Community Notification Coordinator, is also skeptical of the Ostrow-Schiff proposal.
“I've talked to the Des Moines PD [Police Department] a couple of times,” Hinchliff said. “They want it out of their criminal code completely and totally because they can't do anything with it.”
He says that cops find the law difficult to enforce because sex offenders move about frequently, making the tracking of their addresses difficult - and making the tracking and mapping of current offenders' addresses, licensed day care facilities, parks, private and public schools, and senior citizen housing an unwieldy, unusable confluence of data.
“As a practical matter, it's not going to work,” he says flatly.
The Minneapolis City Attorney's office has produced a map showing the effects various distances would have on where Level III sex offenders could live: the map shows areas that would be left to offenders to inhabit if 500-feet, 1,000-feet, 1,500-feet and 2,000-feet restrictions were enacted.
Under the 1,500-feet restriction favored by Schiff, there are only a few areas in the city left open to the Level III offenders who would be restricted from living near schools, parks and daycare. (You can see the map at www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/council/2006-meetings/20060512/Docs/
The only place in Southwest that appears to be eligible under the proposed Schiff restrictions would be a small area just north of the Crosstown and just south of Grass Lake.
Schiff says he thinks the City Attorney's map isn't very accurate.
“If somebody's target population is senior citizens, then prohibiting them from living across from a school doesn't do any good. If your primary concern, for example, is people whose target population are kids under the age of 5, then you may be most concerned about day care centers. So I think the City Attorney in their analysis was making an overly broad assumption that every single offender would be prohibited from living anywhere regardless of their [victim] pool.”
He said sex offenders would be able to live in Minneapolis after enactment of the proposal he will co-sponsor with Ostrow.
He added that sex offenders who have already been released from prison wouldn't be affected until they change addresses. No one would be forced to move.
The city and its residents have the right to restrict where Level III offenders live, he said, noting dryly, “We do distancing for second-hand clothing stores.”
Michael Metzger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 436-4369.