Finding new homes for sex offenders

Minneapolis leaders want state lawmakers to stop the trend of concentrating Minnesota’s sex offenders in the city

Minneapolis is home to nearly half of all Level III sex offenders in Minnesota, even though the city’s population is only 7 percent of the state’s total.

Some of the city’s neighborhoods have a disproportionately high concentration of sex offenders. One zip code alone in North Minneapolis has 24 chronic sex offenders, more than in all of St. Paul.

Many others are homeless, and list addresses of Downtown Minneapolis shelters. The Minnesota Department of Corrections says they are known to spend their time on Downtown streets.

Studies show that Level III sex offenders have a low likelihood of repeating their crimes, but local officials say that concentrating them into small areas stresses communities and hurts property values. City leaders, including North Minneapolis Council Member Don Samuels (5th Ward), are asking that the Minnesota Legislature adopt a plan that disperses the sex offenders in a fair manner.

“If these guys are such a risk to society, they need to change the laws to incarcerate them longer. If they’re not that big of a risk to society, spread them out so it’s a level playing field and one community isn’t unduly burdened with them,” said Deb Wagner, a Jordan neighborhood resident whose 55411 zip code has the most sex offenders in the state.

Why does Minneapolis bear such an uneven burden? It’s a complex problem involving opportunistic landlords, a lack of local control, sex offender networking and the location of community resources.

Residents and leaders are worried that tight state budgets will lead to the release of more sex offenders that eventually end up in Minneapolis.

North side home to most offenders

Level III sex offenders are, by definition, the riskiest of sex offenders. Their public profiles posted on the Minnesota Department of Corrections website often show histories of using weapons so they can rape and sexually assault women and children.

There are 229 released Level III sex offenders living in Minnesota. Of those, 107 live in Hennepin County, with all but five living in Minneapolis. 

North Minneapolis is home to about 50 of those offenders. About 25 live Downtown and 19 live in Southeast. Only four live in Southwest and one offender lives in Northeast.

Dennis Wagner, Deb’s husband, said North Minneapolis neighbors have become more and more aware of the problem in recent years. He and others have become active on the issue, testifying to the state Legislature and meeting with officials.

He and neighbor Troy Kester put together a spreadsheet of Minneapolis zip codes and their sex offenders in comparison to the rest of Hennepin County. They found that some Minneapolis zip codes house 400 to 3,200 percent of what they should, based on the county’s population of 1.1 million.

“It’s kind of that dirty little secret that appears to have been going on for a while and all of a sudden some of the locals started looking and saying, ‘God, we seem to be getting a lot of these Level 3 [notification] flyers around here,’” Dennis Wagner said.

Sex offenders, since 1991, have been required by state law to register their addresses with local law enforcement. Local law enforcement is then required to notify the community, which usually consists of a public meeting and flyers sent to neighbors.

The DOC also identified all Level III sex offenders on its website —

The road to Minneapolis

When a Level III sex offender is to be released from lockup, it’s up to him to come up with a plan for where he will live while he serves the remainder of his sentence in the community, said Tom Merkel, director of Hennepin County Community Corrections.

Merkel said Minneapolis has a few halfway houses, which are attractive to those on parole. Once they live in a halfway house, sex offenders often become connected to the community and will often choose to stay in Minneapolis once their parole has ended.

Because it’s the offender’s decision, Minneapolis is housing sex offenders that didn’t live or commit their crimes anywhere near the city.

In 2010, 20 of the city’s 89 sex offenders at that time were from outside Hennepin County. They came from counties as close as Anoka to as far as Crow Wing and St. Louis. One even came from Wisconsin.

Merkel said the county has appealed some parolees’ placement plans to the state, but said the appeals are usually denied.

It’s important to note that about 60 percent of Minneapolis registered sex offenders are off parole and the county or state has no say in where they can live, although offenders must still notify law enforcement of their residence.

Merkel said a network exists amongst locked up sex offenders, and that extends into finding a home after their release.

Samuels is also a resident of the Jordan neighborhood, and he’s been outspoken about the high level of sex offenders is his ward. 

He said landlords in Minneapolis target sex offenders as tenants because they are required to have jobs.

“There are landlords who will only rent to sex offenders,” Samuels said. “It’s a source of guaranteed employed tenants who are under supervision and have a certain amount of predictability in their lives.”

Samuels said that when the county proposes putting a sex offender in a suburban community, residents will fill the high school gymnasium in protest. In North Minneapolis, he said, the community is fatigued from fighting drugs, violence and prostitution.

Perception, not crime, drives down property values

The Wagners have lived in their same home for 26 years and they’re raising their daughter, a freshman in high school, in the neighborhood.

“We’re raising our daughter here and if we felt it was unsafe, we wouldn’t be here,” Deb said.

But Deb Wagner is also a real estate agent and does most of her business in North Minneapolis. When potential buyers get their hands on a real estate contract, they are notified that they should check the area for sex offenders on the DOC Web site.

“It’s mentioned several times in real estate contracts” she said. “For people to disregard that, it takes somebody pretty unusual. Unless they’re not super paranoid about that, but who isn’t when you mention sex offenders? Especially if you’re planning to move into a community with your children.”

The recidivism rate for sex offenders is 12 percent, which is lower than for other criminals, according to Minnesota Department of Corrections 2007 study.

“It creates a perception that this is not a safe place to live,” Wagner said.

City wants laws enforced

The state is struggling with budget deficits — $6.2 billion this biennium — and incarcerating sex offenders at $300 per day is costly. To have those same offenders living under supervised release costs only $90 per day, per offender, according to the DOC.

The DOC says it may release an additional seven sex offenders within the year.

The city of Minneapolis has tried to combat the problem locally, but found that it is illegal for the city to make ordinances restricting where sex offenders can live.

For the last few years, the city has listed the issue as a priority on its legislative agenda. While new sex offender laws are adopted frequently at the state capitol, Minneapolis has not gotten its wish.

“Sex offenders seem to get a lot of attention at the Legislature, maybe not always focused on things we hope they would focus on,” said City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward), who chairs the committee that drafts the legislative agenda.

Local officials say the solution is twofold. The state needs to come up with a better plan for placement of sex offenders and clarify and enforce language in state statutes that prohibits high concentrations of sex offenders.

According to state law, “The agency responsible for the offender’s supervision shall take into consideration the proximity of the offender’s residence to that of other level III offenders and proximity to schools and, to the greatest extent feasible, shall mitigate the concentration of level III offenders and concentration of level III offenders near schools.”

Samuels would like that law enforced in Minneapolis. 

The Wagners hope so, too.

“Other people don’t want to pay to have these guys locked up,” Dennis Wagner said. “Then put them in your backyard too. Share the pain, share the gain.”

Reach Nick Halter at [email protected]